School bonding referendums are challenging no matter where you live. Generally, people support education and want the best for the kids in the community. But that does not necessarily mean a referendum will be successful.
School leaders and community supporters often start a referendum campaign believing they need to convince over 50 percent of voters to support their effort. However, a theory exists that categorizes voters into three main groups that influence the outcome of a referendum. Understanding this theory helps school districts focus their energy, and their time, on the groups that will help them to be successful.
Here’s a look at those three key groups:
On average, about 20-25 percent of community members will vote in favor of a referendum, almost no matter what. The key is getting these people to the polls to vote. Because they so wholeheartedly believe in the value of education and see the need for ongoing investment, they tend to believe that the majority of the community would support a referendum. “Why would it fail?” is the question I get from this group. It is important to spend time with this group to ensure they understand the referendum, support it publicly, and most importantly, cast their votes on Election Day. Many times, this is the group from which many of the “Yes Committee” volunteers arise.
If school leaders and supporters can mobilize this group, they are almost half way to the goal of passing the referendum.
On the other side of the spectrum, there is another 20-25 percent that you likely will never convince to vote yes – no matter what you do. They typically believe schools have received enough funding and do not want to commit additional tax dollars to upgrade facilities. It’s valuable to listen to members of this group to understand the objections. Often times, some of this group’s objections and concerns can help focus the district’s referendum communication plan. However, it is easy to get stuck trying to answer this group’s objections to the plan. I have seen referendums fail when school leaders and community supporters spend much of their time and energy addressing this group’s concerns while not giving enough attention to the other two groups. Remember – they will very likely vote “no” regardless.
This group often influences voter turnout. Just like with Group 1, these voters sometimes don’t turn out to vote, believing that no one would want to support an increase in taxes and school funding. However, more typically they want to ensure the defeat of the referendum, and become vocal and active in their opposition. This increases the voter turnout of this group. It may even help to increase the number of members of Group 1 who turn out to vote, as they begin to understand that not everyone feels like they do and it is possible the referendum will fail.
So, that leaves 50 percent of the eligible voters in the school district who are undecided and who will want information to help them decide to either support or not support the referendum. Like Group 2, this group will ask questions and raise objections, but their goal is to gain understanding. This is the group that the school district (and the Yes Committee) can work with to answer their questions, address their concerns, refine their message and encourage them to get to the polls. Moving the majority of this group to the polls to support the plan will most likely determine if a referendum passes.
Most referendum votes fall within a range of 60/40, for or against. School districts rarely see a referendum garner more that 75 percent support, or less that 25 percent support.
The five school bond referendums that failed in May in Minnesota all fell within margin that supports the 25/50/25 hypothesis. In Sauk Rapids-Rice, only 55 percent voted down the levy proposal. In St. Francis, the referendum to better the schools failed by 492 votes with 45 percent of voters supporting it. In North Branch, the levy failed with 53 percent voting no.
The recent trends in Minnesota may feel bleak with only 25 percent of the school bond referendums passing since January, according to data from the Minnesota School Board Association. But the opportunity to pass referendums and create the learning environments our students need remains. We’ve seen it in the recent passing of two Minnesota school referendum projects that we have been a part of.
TAKING THE NEXT STEP
When your survey says 20-25 percent would vote against your referendum no matter what, don’t lose heart. That’s normal. Roll up your sleeves, lay out a plan and engage your community.
Referendums fail for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the community doesn’t feel they were engaged effectively or early enough in the process, or if they were, they feel they weren’t listened to. Other times it is because the plan itself was not refined or aligned with the district’s goals, or there were elements of the plan that weren’t effectively explained. It also can be due to an existing condition that simply was not addressed in the referendum, or more likely, in the communication to the community. Rarely is it that the community believes nothing should be done.
Don’t give up on a good thing. We often tell students if at first they don’t succeed, to try (try) again. It’s good advice for school leaders during referendums, too. The statistics show that most referendums do fail the first time. But they don’t have to. The process really does matter.
Many times, superintendents see that after a community engagement process and refined plan, they get a better result. More times than not, we see that the majority of the community is behind their schools. They just want the best possible plan for the community’s students, and want to understand the plan. Working with the right groups of people will improve your chances of passing the referendum – the first time.
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