When a school district goes to referendum, the end goal is obvious. We aim to get enough votes for the referendum to pass so the district can the fund programs, services or capital projects it needs.
But in our view, a successful referendum effort is about more than pass or fail—it’s also about building trust between a school district and its community. Ultimately, a referendum should lead to productive conversations within a community about the future of its local public schools.
We can do this by always communicating clearly and honestly throughout the referendum process.
We have seen many situations in which a referendum will pass with slightly more than 50 percent of the vote. However, because the district and board used a “scorched earth” effort that led to the referendum passing, it also contributed to considerable distrust of the district among many community members.
We believe a successful referendum is one that passes by a large margin and that builds trust among voters, including those who chose to vote against the measure.
First, we view a referendum as a solution to a challenge or a need in a district. We never refer to “winning” or “losing” a referendum, but only to finding a solution to the district’s needs.
It is absolutely critical that voters understand the need that’s being addressed by the referendum solution. Furthermore, when a referendum does not pass, it is most often because voters did not fully understand the need. We have found this to be true in districts across Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and South Dakota, including in both very progressive and very conservative districts.
Second, voters want to know their school board did its due diligence in assessing the need and developing the best possible solution. We find it’s important to share the process the board used to develop the solution being presented to voters in the form of a referendum question.
Finally, we must communicate about the referendum solution. For a capital referendum, this means outlining the projects on which the district would move ahead with the funds generated. Usually, these projects will allow the district to update or replace outdated facilities or expand its capacity to meet the demands of increasing enrollment.
For an operational referendum, we often need to provide stakeholders with basic context into school finance. In essence, we must explain how the solution, created by a sound process, addresses the district’s financial needs—and why the district has those needs in the first place.
Although there is no single right way to approach a referendum communications effort, we’ve found that by focusing on integrity, authenticity and transparency, school leaders can build the trust they need to garner long-term support in their communities.
The concept of a voted Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (PPEL) is unique to Iowa education. It allows school districts to raise the local levy to fund project and improvements related to facilities, buildings and grounds. In most other states, districts may need to go to referendum to fund these items.
While a PPEL vote tends to be much less intensive than a referendum or bond issue, it still provides an opportunity to school leaders to communicate and engage their community members in a conversation about the future of their local schools. We suggest making the most of an upcoming PPEL by informing community members of what an approved PPEL would cover and how it would ultimately help students.
Below are some quick tips for communicating before an Iowa PPEL vote:
1) Communicate early and often
We typically find it’s important to over-communicate, especially about the district’s needs, in advance of a PPEL vote. This can be a challenge, as many people in your community will first hear about the district’s needs very late in the process, even if you have done a good job of communicating throughout.
2) Provide detail
While these levies are often approved, relatively few community members truly know what a PPEL is. To clear up any confusion, provide background information on the purpose of a PPEL and exactly how your school district will use the funds. If possible, explain the projects you will be able to move forward on if the PPEL were to be approved.
3) Inform, but don’t advocate
School leaders should not allow their PPEL communications efforts to move into the realm of advocacy. It is generally acceptable to encourage community members to vote and ensure they have accurate information about the needs, process and solution before election day. But must never tell people how to vote or campaign for a vote in favor of the levy.
4) Use multiple communication channels
Use all the tools at your disposal when communicating before an Iowa PPEL vote. Send a letter or email home to parents, post updates to social media and send out a news release when the school board approves the PPEL. Write a guest article for your local newspaper and meet with local community groups to share information.
5) Focus on building trust
Communicating before an Iowa PPEL vote is great way to gain trust in the community. This happens by being as truthful as possible, by answering questions as honestly as we can and by operating with a high level of integrity. A successful levy vote not only results in a passage, but it also builds trust between a school district and its community.
If your district has a PPEL vote on its radar screen, do some planning about how you will communicate ahead of time. Through good, transparent communication, you can help tell your district’s story and give your community members greater buy in to your local schools.
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.