Donovan Group Insights

Effective School Referendum Planning is About More Than Pass or Fail

When we think about what it means to have a successful school referendum planning process, our goal is to do much more than ensure 51 percent of community members vote in favor of the question on the ballot.

Instead, we consider a well-executed referendum effort to be one that gets overwhelming support (65 percent or more), while also building trust in a community and elevating the level of conversation about educational issues.

The reason this is so important is because of the long-term effects a truly successful school referendum planning and execution process can have on a community. By always telling the truth, being as transparent as possible and working to engage every single community member, school and district leaders can position themselves as credible sources of information.

It’s also important to remember that in many communities, the future of public education is far from certain. The school referendum planning effort in which you’re currently engaged may not be your last. Pass or fail, it’s quite possible you may need to go back to voters five years from now and ask them to consider an a second referendum question.

In other words, the best way to pass a subsequent referendum in future years is to communicate with integrity the first time around.

We’ve seen alternative approaches in action—and they’re far from effective. Some school boards embark on what might be best described as a “scorched earth” approach, using fear and spin to pass a referendum. While it’s possible to get a referendum passed this way, it can significantly reduce a district’s credibility and trust in the long term.

Best practices in school referendum communication

As you plan your referendum communications efforts, there are a few key tips to keep in mind. First, you should get comfortable over-communicating, especially about your district’s financial or facilities-related needs. This can be a big challenge, as you may feel like you are repeating the same message over and over. That’s because you are.

Even very late in the process, you will find that some community members are only first learning about the referendum question that will appear on the ballot. This is true in almost all cases, even for school leaders who have done a fantastic job of communicating from the start.

Thus, even after the school board has voted to place a question on the ballot and you’ve moved on to communicating about the solution, you should continue to focus on needs. Never assume that all community members are on the same page.

We also must never allow our school referendum efforts to move into the realm of advocacy. It is generally acceptable to encourage community members to vote and ensure that they have good information about the needs, the process used to evaluate those needs and the referendum solution in advance of election day. However, school leaders should never tell people how to vote.

Finally, communication in advance of a referendum is an incredibly valuable way to gain trust in a community. This occurs by being as truthful as possible, to answer questions honestly and to operate with integrity.

Again, a successful referendum endeavor is one that not only results in a majority of “yes” votes, but also builds trust. Your top goal should be to ensure that parents, staff, community members and other stakeholders are as engaged as possible in the success of their local public schools.

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