School Referendum Success


School Referendum Assistance & Planning Services

The Donovan Group is a dedicated partner for school districts considering capital or operational referenda. We believe that a clearly planned and well-executed referendum effort can bring together a community around its local schools and boost the level of trust community members have in their school district.

The Donovan Group’s services include all facets of school referendum assistance, planning and execution—from start to finish. We work to engage community members in conversations about the following:

✓  The need to exceed a revenue limit or carry out a capital project
✓  Processes that evaluate needs and find solutions to them, via a referendum
✓  Solutions connected to referendum questions that address determined needs

Our experience providing school referendum assistance
Below you will find examples of our previous school district referendum work:

✓  Mequon-Thiensville School District (capital referendum)
✓  Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District (capital referendum)
✓  Whitefish Bay School District (capital referendum)
✓  Westfield-Montello School District Consolidation
✓  St. Francis School District (capital referendum)
✓  School District of La Crosse (operational referendum)
✓  Oregon School District (capital and operational referendum)
✓  School District of Fort Atkinson (operational referendum)
✓  Oconto Falls School District (operational referendum)
✓  Green Bay Area Public School District (capital referendum)
✓  Seymour Community School District (operational referendum)
✓  School District of Belleville (capital referendum)
✓  East Troy Community School District (capital referendum)
✓  Fox Point-Bayside School District (operational referendum)
✓  Port Washington-Saukville School District (capital referendum)
✓  Grafton School District (capital referendum)



Mequon-Thiensville School District

Starting in 2014, the Donovan Group worked with the Mequon-Thiensville School District on a complex project that involved several initiatives in various buildings across the district, including the creation of new flexible learning spaces at its high school.

The project began with a process evaluating the needs of the district, including the Donovan Group’s work with the district’s facilities staff and architect. The resulting information was used to create a pamphlet that was designed, printed, and mailed to community members, inviting them to participate in a robust district-wide survey.

In April 2015, voters in the district overwhelmingly passed an $18.2 million referendum. This was the first approved referendum for the district in 17 years, after referendums were rejected in both 2002 and 2006.


Middleton Cross Plains School District

In 2012, after a failed referendum attempt, the Donovan Group worked for approximately one year to establish the district’s facility needs and engage stakeholders around those needs. The Donovan Group then assisted the district in communicating various facility solutions with staff, parents, and other community members in advance of the referendum.

The project was extremely complex and included changing grade configurations at the elementary and middle schools. Ultimately, the project passed with 68% approval, and involved one of the largest referendum projects in Wisconsin history.


Whitefish Bay School District

In 2009, the Whitefish Bay School District engaged the services of the Donovan Group to assist in all facets of communications and community engagement in advance of a multi-building capital project.

The project was challenging for a number of reasons, including the fact that community members differed in their perceptions of the district’s needs and the proposed solutions. The district also had unique characteristics and traditions, and many community members were concerned about changing the iconic nature of the high-school building.

The Donovan Group worked with the district to create and apply a very robust communications approach that began with a series of conversations with key communicators in the district and guest columns that ran in the local newspaper. Other local media outlets were invited to tour the schools and learn more about the district’s facilities needs.

A series of message points and an internal “frequently asked questions” (FAQ) document were created, to keep board and staff members on the same page. A website for the effort was launched and was regularly updated with information about various community listening sessions and the needs of the schools, as well as video tours of the buildings. A special FAQ document for community members was also created and regularly updated.

The Donovan Group provided remarks, presentation slides, and corresponding information. It assisted in organizing various community outreach events in the community and wrote and designed a mail piece that was sent to all community members.

In the end, the two referendum questions that were placed on the ballot passed with 69% and 52% support.



Westfield-Montello School District Consolidation Project

In 2010, the Donovan Group was engaged to work jointly with the administrations and school boards of the Westfield School District and the Montello School District, concerning a potential consolidation between the two.

The project presented a unique set of challenges, because internal stakeholders in each of the districts struggled to reach consensus, and there were significant disagreements between the internal stakeholders of each school.

In an effort to solve these issues, Joe Donovan of the Donovan Group worked with all of the stakeholders to find common ground regarding their challenges as districts. A series of regular in-district meetings and follow-up conference calls addressed concerns in a very straightforward manner. This process was used to develop a comprehensive referendum plan for both districts that called on each to speak to their communities about their unique challenges while answering questions in a unified way.

To facilitate this process, an intranet site was created and used by internal stakeholders to find agreement on all facets of the effort, including very detailed questions about such complicated things as the districts’ debt structure and which schools would be closed as a result of the consolidation.

In addition to communications that were done separately, which built on common themes, the presidents of both boards and the superintendents of both districts signed letters to the editor of local papers, showing a common vision and a united front.

All community engagement and communications efforts related to this unique situation were carried out by Joe Donovan of the Donovan Group, including all internal talking points, FAQ documents, website copy, website creation, collateral design, presentations, and slides.

While the consolidation did not pass, board members have credited the process with renewed interest in keeping schools open in both communities.



St. Francis School District

In November of 2008, the Donovan Group’s Joe Donovan worked with the St. Francis School District on an extensive multi-building capital referendum project.

Working with several other consultants, Joe Donovan conducted a community survey of residents to understand their willingness to fix the schools and their ability to pay for the necessary repairs. Based on the survey, Mr. Donovan developed a three-pronged referendum strategy.

The referendum passed with over 60% of the vote.



School District of La Crosse

When the School District of La Crosse was considering an operational referendum to exceed the revenue limit and a capital referendum to repair its facilities, Joe Donovan was partner and vice-president of research and communication at School Perceptions, a research and consulting firm that works with schools and school districts. In this position, Donovan worked with the school district and other consultants to design a community survey that showed a high level of community engagement and specific levels of support for various projects and their corresponding costs.

As a result of the data collection, Donovan created a comprehensive communications strategy that addressed the unique engagement needs of the district and answered the questions of community members that were noted in the survey. Many community members who had not understood the district’s needs or been meaningfully engaged with it were able to do so as a result.

The referendum question for the operational referendum, which was on the ballot in April 2008, passed. A second referendum question for a capital project failed in April, but passed the next November, after information and strategies employed for the April election were used.