The Puyallup School District in Washington brought a $279 million bond issue before the local community in February, with plans to move 4,000 students out of portable classrooms by constructing and expanding buildings. The measure lost narrowly—55 percent of voters said yes to an issue that needed 60 percent to pass.
And in August, voters in the Farmington Public Schools in Michigan rejected a $222 million bond issue that would have upgraded classrooms and infrastructure, enhanced district technology, and upgraded safety and security measures.
As school district leaders face tight budgets, aging buildings, rapid advancements in technology, and the latest demands for excellence, they also must work to win support from voters who remain wary of paying more taxes during a slow economic recovery.
Districts can reach people who don’t visit schools by publicizing programs and issues through local media and by uploading articles, blogs and videos on school websites. For the Puyallup School District—which lost its bond issue last year and continues to operate with more than 200 portable classrooms—inviting residents into the schools in person or via video might have been helpful, says Superintendent Timothy Yeomans.
“Voters didn’t have a sense of urgency regarding temporary housing,” he says. “Many voters simply haven’t been in a school lately, and might not understand the importance of adequate housing of students.”
But there are plenty of success stories. For instance, in Wake County, N.C., voters recently approved an $810 million bond issue to build 16 new schools, renovate six schools, and provide minor improvements at 79 others. The money also will be used to upgrade the districtwide technology infrastructure, says James Merrill, superintendent of the Wake County Public School System.
He attributes the bond passage to support from local leaders and to the district’s “transparency and openness throughout the planning stages, establishing priorities, and communicating value to our community,” he says.
Other districts have found success by allowing outside organizations to join their bond issue campaigns. An important reason for the recent win in Wake County was the support of a group called “Friends of Wake County,” Merrill says. The local Chamber of Commerce created the group, which included leaders in the business, nonprofit, and faith sectors who helped earn support throughout the community.
Anatomy of a successful communications plan
In Wake County School District in North Carolina, district communications staff developed a robust campaign to help pass a bond referendum in August 2013, says Superintendent James Merrill. Key components included:
- Robust website: The school system’s website provided varied information on the proposed building program, making strong connections between improved school buildings, academic progress, teacher retention and continued economic progress in the community. Speakers. The local advocacy group and district staff presented information to numerous community groups. Speakers from the district communications staff made presentations to school staff to convince all of the district’s 18,000 employees to vote ‘yes.’
- Marketing collateral: Marketing collateral. Posters and brochures describing the bond issue and exactly how the funds would be used were scattered around 170 schools and central offices, as well as at county offices, local community college campuses, and the health department.
- News media: District communications staff made administrators available to local news media, including TV and online news sites, to provide information about the bond and the needs for school improvements. They also provided interviews and visuals to communicate the district’s messages.
To increase their chances of winning the next bond vote, district administrators must overcome voter resistance to tax increases and work to build long-term relationships with their local communities, based on open communication and mutual trust. They must make their case that the money is badly needed and will be used effectively.
To convince the public of that, administrators must hold town meetings, publish community newsletters, develop robust websites, or find whatever tools make sense in their districts to help win the public’s support.
The average person has little understanding of how schools are funded or what bonds are, says Suhail Farooqui, CEO of K12 Insight, a consulting firm that in part advises districts on bond issues. “They are owed a simple explanation. If a school board and district leadership team fail to connect and get their story across in a credible manner, they will lose—and they often do.”
Once upon a time, the local newspaper was the dominant source of community news, and “the paper’s endorsement often meant the difference between winning and losing bond elections,” Farooqui says. “That is no longer true.”
Today, blogs, social media and hyperlocal news websites can be a powerful force in driving local opinion. “The same social media that has caused revolutions in many countries is the medium around which today’s bond election voters are exchanging information,” he says. “Sadly, sometimes it can be misinformation.”
School districts are also up against jaded public opinion, an offshoot of increasingly divisive politics at all levels of government. “Unfortunately, public confidence in any publicly-funded institution, including our public schools, erodes more and more with each passing year,” says Scott Milder, director of election services at SHW Group, which helped three San Antonio area school districts win bond issues in 2013.
“The percentage of elections passing is declining and the margin of victory in those that do is shrinking," Milder says. "A school district can no longer develop a plan on its own behind closed doors, send out a few press releases and a mailer, and expect an election to pass.”
Rather than viewing the passage of a bond issue as a one-time project, district administrators should focus on building an ongoing, trusting relationship with local constituents. That may be accomplished by hosting town hall meetings and open house nights, where community members can give input, and meet with administrators and school board members.
Districts also should conduct regular community surveys, and communicate with the public via print, radio, local media or online video.
Everything local voters have seen and heard about the school system in recent months and years will influence their opinions of the district and, potentially, their vote in the next bond election. Some common reasons that bond issues fail include a history of negative headlines about the school system in local media, and the failure of school leaders to give the community confidence in their abilities, Milder says.
Community members are more likely to trust the abilities of school leaders if they are regularly informed about district successes. “There is no short-term fix,” Farooqui adds. “Building and maintaining confidence and trust of a community is hardly a simple process, yet that is the key to winning bond elections.”
The Westfield Public Schools in New Jersey learned that lesson well. In September 2012, the district proposed to voters a $16.9 million bond to replace roofs on all its buildings and to also construct a new lighted athletic field. With organized opposition protesting the field as unneeded, the community voted ‘no’ to the entire bond issue, which derailed the badly needed roofing project.
So the district learned from the mistake of pairing unrelated projects, and came back to the community three months later, in December 2012, to ask for a $13.6 million bond issue, solely to replace the roofs on all of its buildings.
Six months after the bond passed, the district learned it was eligible for a state construction grant that would pay for 40 percent of the roofs that had not yet been started. Despite the fact that the projects will be completed either way, the district is spending significant time and energy informing the public about the referendum that could reduce their taxes in the end, says Lorre Korecky, the district’s coordinator of school-community relations.
The district has posted information about the referendum on its website and in the public library, at the YMCA, in district parent newsletters, and in preschools around town. In addition, the superintendent and other district leaders have presented all the facts at school board meetings and to community groups, such as the Rotary Club.
“We are doing all the same communications for this as we did in 2012, when we needed to pass the bond issue,” Korecky says. “Our public supports us in so many ways, so it’s our responsibility to let them know. We see it as a pleasure to be able to give back.”
To begin earning the trust of the community, invite residents into the schools and offer opportunities for them to learn more about district staff, students, and programs, Korecky says. She recommends districts host community events, and offer local churches and nonprofits the use of school buildings, athletic fields, and playgrounds. Districts can also promote school plays and concerts through news media and collaborate with local employers to provide guest speakers for students.
An “honest and thorough community-driven planning process” can be key to winning any bond issue, says SHW Group’s Milder. While it can be difficult for district leaders to relinquish control of the decision, Milder says allowing a group of citizens to lead the charge for a bond issue is important for success.
By including a broad-based representative sample of community members in the decision-making process, a district has a ready-made group of champions for the plan. “Together they’ll work hard to help make sure the election passes,” Milder says. “The school board and superintendent can no longer win on their own.”
Listen and identify micro-audiences
Even with a core group of vocal supporters on the district’s side, administrators and board members must take an organized, thorough approach to winning the support of voters. It will include listening carefully to naysayers and calmly asserting the facts.
In addition to answering the opposition, today’s district communicators must craft different messages to different constituent groups. “One message for all no longer works,” Milder says. “School leaders today should identify their micro-audiences and craft messages specifically to them.”
For example, a district may be replacing an old elementary school. Identifying likely voters who live in that attendance boundary is key. But when communicating with voters in another part of the district, which will not benefit from that new elementary school, leaders should focus on another part of the plan that may be more meaningful to those voters.
Finally, all communication shouldn’t come from the district’s designated communications staff.
“School superintendents, school board members, and other leaders should reach out to voters individually,” Milder says. “Call them. Knock on their doors. Make sure they are aware you have an election coming up—let them know what it is for, and ask them if they have any questions."
Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer in Alabama.