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How to Get Your Bond Passed

Here's some expert advice to consider when a ballot initiative is on your district's horizon

Few mornings are as nerve-wracking at district headquarters than an election day when a bond measure is on the ballot. By the time the sun goes down, you learn whether or not your schools will have the resources to tackle some of the district's most pressing needs. Millions in some extraordinary cases, billions of dollars are at stake.

You can increase your odds of winning by paying attention to some relatively simple rules. Every district is unique; even experts that have worked on dozens of campaigns can't offer a set of phrases that make every voter nod approvingly or a list of projects that always garner support. But if you follow the six steps below, you have a much better chance to be celebrating when the polls are closed.

1. Lay the Groundwork Now

When a bond issues flounders, it's often because too many voters went to the polls with a poor opinion of the school district, anything from lagging test scores to an old argument between two board members that played out in the press. Come election day, you want people thinking about how the money will improve student's education, and not nursing some grudge. By reaching out before the bond is even on the ballot, you can create invaluable goodwill.

In the Everett (Wash.) Public Schools District, director of communications Gay Campbell mails letters to about 100 homes near every elementary and middle school in the district. Hand addressed and signed by each principal, the letters keep neighbors who don't have school-age children informed about school news, especially anything that might be disruptive, like new bus routes. "The whole tone of the letters is, 'We want to be good neighbors,' " she says. "We select people who we think will help with word of mouth. We want to build a relationship with them, so they'll trust us to be able to spend their money wisely."

2. Build the Ballot

Preparation is even more important when the time comes to write the bond measure itself. Every district has a list of top priorities, but those doesn't necessarily correspond to what the electorate is willing to pay for. Run some polls and find out what items are appealing enough to provide enough yes votes to win. If insisting on spending money for a new laptop for every high school student will cause the district to lose the bond, drop it.

"We do a lot of polling early on and get a sense of what voters want to support. You've got to sprinkle some sugar on the bran. We're sure we fund what we need, with a mix of things we can highlight," says Glenn Gritzner, who was special assistant to the superintendent in the Los Angeles Unified School District through three bond issues in the last four years that totaled more than $10 billion.

You may even find that the votes just aren't out there to pass any ballot initiative right now. While disappointing, it's better to know beforehand and hold off than to gear up and suffer a dispiriting defeat. "Maybe you come back in six months or a year, instead," says Campbell, who has consulted on nearly 20 ballot initiatives for districts around the Pacific Northwest. "Why spend the time and money now? Why train the voters to think you can't win?"

3. Motivate Your Friends, Ignore Your Enemies

The conventional wisdom on school bond issues is that most people know how they feel about more money for schools before they've even heard the details and it's very hard to change their minds. Under these circumstances, your best strategy is to work to motivate the "yes" voters to get to the polls, and don't spend much time, money or effort to try to convince "no" voters to reconsider. In the parlance of the 2004 election, the name of the game is to get out your base. Even if polling tells you that it's worthwhile, or necessary, to try to convince some people on the fence, the typical formula is: Hold your own with the persuasion voters, do well with the "yes" turnout vote and you'll win the measure.

Sophisticated surveys can tell you with some certainty the demographics and location of your supporters. Then try to connect with them three or four times before the election with tightly targeted appeals that are seen by your supporters and your supporters only, like postcards or events in particular neighborhoods. In this kind of campaign, broad appeals like ads in the local paper and gimmicks such as high school cheerleaders standing downtown with signs during rush hour are usually a bad idea. They're unlikely to change anyone's mind and because they're witnessed by everyone, your work is as likely to remind the "no" voters to get out to vote as your supporters.

4. Create a Strong Inside/Outside Team

For almost every state, school districts aren't allowed to spend resources and that includes employees' time on lobbying to pass a ballot. So you need a citizens committee to print and distribute flyers and postcards, organize meetings, speak to reporters, buy any ads, etc. Choosing your citizens committee can be a crucial step. Along with obvious supporters such as construction firms and affected labor unions, aim for bringing in high-profile endorsements.

"The more community leaders you can put on your side, the better: realtor's association, the chamber of commerce, ministerial association. You've got to get people in the community who are trusted to support you," says Larry Molacek, superintendent of the South Tama County Community School District in Tama, Iowa, which passed a $9 million construction bond issue on the second try, after organized opposition torpedoed the first attempt with attacks on the honesty and competence of his administration.

The district staff can still play an important role, though. The district can provide the basic facts on what the ballot initiative will accomplish, allowing you to print up materials that lay out what your polling has shown are attractive goals.

Staff can spend time and resources internally, explaining to all district employees what the measure will accomplish (and having the unified support and clear communications with all your faculty and administrators is very important). Staff can even go out and speak at rallies, go door-to-door and coordinate activities with the citizens committee as long as it's on their own time. Just be sure to talk with your legal counsel and draw a "bright line" between voluntary activities and district ones.

5. Write Clear, Simple Messages That Resonate

Although much of your work will likely center around bringing out voters who already are willing to vote yes, messaging is still important. You don't have to be too clever the big text in a citizens committee mailing is often simply a variation on "Don't forget to vote to support kids' education on Nov. 3" but after that, highlight with a few bullets what that money will do. With the results from the surveys, you should have a very good idea of what local yes voters think are good uses of the money.

In LA, Gritzner says, popular funding goals included early education, charter schools and school repairs: "Repair, we found, is always more important to our voters than new construction. After all, they can't just move to a new house when their old one has problems. But when we explain that new schools are to 'relieve overcrowding,' then they kind of get it."

6. Know Everything About Your Project

Even if you think you've got sufficient support locked up, be ready to answer any questions that might come up. Brad Paulsen, director of educational services at Wight & Company, an architectural and construction firm based in Darien, Ill., that has worked with more than 30 school districts on bond issues over the last few decades, says voters want to know more than ever before. His firm helps provide its clients with floor plans, step-by-step explanations of renovation work, detailed budget breakdowns even computer-generated, 3-D "fly-around" imaging of what a new building will look like.

"They want to see where the school will be located, where the field house will be, the overall project budget," Paulsen says. "Some consultants say that can be too much information, that you lose votes because some people see an artist's rendering and don't like red brick, for example. But in my opinion, that factor is trumped by the people in the district who want to see exactly what they're getting for their higher taxes. The credibility that you project with your knowledge and the people who are on board give the community great comfort that the district will spend this money wisely."

Carl Vogel is a Chicago-based writer.