Donovan Group Insights

A Truly Successful School Referendum Builds Trust in a Community

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.

To that end, there are a few tenants common to all school referendum communications efforts.


Key principles in referendum communication

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 Usually, these projects will allow the district to update or replace outdated facilities or expand its capacity to meet the demands of increasing enrollment.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.

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