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Passing a Bond After 17 Years of “No” – How Online Engagement Helped

Earning the trust of the community in a strategic and genuine way is key

Central Valley School District near Spokane, Washington, hadn’t passed a bond in 17 years. In February 2015, the district overcame its history of failed referendums, a vocal No campaign and a 60 percent voter approval requirement to pass its $121.9 million bond with nearly 70 percent approval. In this web seminar, originally presented on April 8, 2015, presenters discussed how administrators gained insight into the priorities of district staff and community members, how community conversations helped shape the bond measure, and how strategic engagement leading up to the referendum helped the district earn the trust of the community.

BEN SMALL
Superintendent
Central Valley School District (Wash.)

Although we struggled to pass bonds in the past, we feel fortunate to live in a community that does value public education. We have a supportive community, they just had not, until recently, shown that support through the passage of a capital facilities bond. Our elementary and high schools are overcrowded, and our elementary schools are open-concept, meaning that there are no structured hallways, doors or walls. That has led to some security concerns from our community, with the issues concerning the safety of students being different than they were 20 years ago.

We knew that our community had to be involved in the process of putting together a plan to meet the facilities needs in our district. So we went about doing that the best way that we knew how. We held town hall meetings and open houses. We met with leadership groups. We used traditional surveys. We went to farmer’s markets. We connected with our local media. We were asking for our community’s input over and over again, yet it just did not seem to be enough. So we decided on a different way of doing this. At the root of what we believe is that a community wants to be involved and engaged in its schools. If you provide meaningful ways for them to give you input and a meaningful way to analyze that input, then it will improve decision-making. So we engaged online through Thoughtexchange.

I believe that you have to demonstrate that you want people to engage with you, before you go out and say, “Oh, by the way, now we want you to engage with us about a bond.” What are the other issues in your school district that people want to engage with you on? You have to engage around those through the Thoughtexchange platform before you dive in and say, “Now we want to hear from you about capital facilities.” So our first engagement was about school improvement, and we used Thoughtexchange to engage over 4,000 constituents. We received more than 10,000 thoughts and more than 150,000 stars were assigned to those thoughts. To put that in context, if you put 4,000 participants in one room with each talking for four minutes, it would take 11 days running 24 hours a day to get the amount of input that we were able to gather from our community through this effort.

When it came time for the bond scenario engagement, we presented two viable scenarios and then asked three open-ended questions about each. We had approximately 2,000 constituents weigh in on the strengths and challenges within those two scenarios, and we had more than 4,000 prioritized thoughts that informed the committee’s recommendation for a third scenario. What did we learn? Safety and security were essential, our community did not want us to raise the tax rate, and they wanted us to address the impact of overcrowding. We had always thought and always been told that HVAC systems, roofing and mechanical systems passed bonds. But in our engagement we learned that facility condition was trumped every single time by capacity, and by safety and security. Addressing those concerns would get these bonds passed. This was an ah-ha moment for us.

Lastly, don’t think just short-term. Think long-term, because not everything can be fixed in one bond measure. We got all that information in and put together a scenario that was a combination of the original two scenarios. It resonated with our community that we were genuinely asking for their opinion, that we took their concerns into account, and we came up with a bond measure that addressed those issues that were important to our community. We passed the bond with a 64.84 percent majority.

DAVE MACLEOD
President and Founder
Thoughtexchange

If there’s one takeaway that we’re hoping you’ll get out of this, it’s that the ability to analyze data from your constituents is pretty important, but the ability to demonstrate that you’ve had a powerful process that helped inform your decision-making is probably the most important thing you can do. Thoughtexchange is group insight software. Imagine the sort of meeting where you ask people for their thoughts, you post their thoughts around the room, you give them stickers, and they go around and put their stickers on ideas they like. That is essentially what our software enables you to do, but on a much grander scale.

We also have services to help in facilitating these large-scale engagements. We do some leadership development to make sure that your staff is listening and understanding what their community is communicating. We work with districts across North America, as small as 1,000 students and as large as 200,000 students. The foundation of the process is that we ask people to share their thoughts and we ask open-ended questions. We ask people to consider the thoughts of other stakeholders, other constituents, other staff members. And then we share all the results back with people so that they understand that they were listened to. When we share someone’s idea, in the Star step they would see their idea surrounded by the thoughts of other constituents. So if they had a concern about the bond scenario not addressing overcrowding in the high schools, for example, that would be surrounded by thoughts of other community members who might be concerned about the elementary schools, or about busing, or about all sorts of things.

It’s an opportunity for people to consider that someone else thinks differently. It’s a very important moment that enables learning and builds empathy. Analysis is very important. You want to make sure that you’ve employed a process that you can analyze, and that you can feel confident your decisions have been accurately informed. But process is actually more important than analysis. There are a few reasons for that. One is that a decision with great process generally contains great analysis. But then, also, the notion of fair process is a very powerful concept. You want to ensure that you are making an excellent decision that’s informed by excellent analysis, but you also want to show how people were involved.

Another important consideration is that you have to ask the right questions. You don’t want to ask things that could create more polarization in your community. And people don’t want to answer 100-question surveys. Open-ended questions that make people feel like someone cares about their opinion are much more effective. You also want to ensure your questions are identifying interests, such as asking “Why is that important to you?” And, you want to make sure that you don’t overly democratize your questions. If you do all that in the right way, you can ensure that everyone learns together through the process. It’s not about everyone having the answers right away, but that the community is actually having a chance to learn together. It’s not just polling people for what they think. It’s saying, “Let’s learn together and figure out what we think as a community.”

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please visit: www.districtadministration.com/ws040815