Over the past decade, one item has single-handedly had the greatest impact on the success of school building referendums: Communication. It’s not that communication wasn’t important before then. Just now information can reach voters faster with the advent and acceleration of social media.
Reaching those voters also is far more important given that roughly 1 in 4 household now have students in school compared to 3 in 4 households in the past. Simply sharing information by sending notes home, emailing newsletters and chatting at student conferences are not enough.
Effective communication has long been a part of the process that I have used to assist schools with facility and referendum planning. It starts at the beginning of the project during our Community Facilitation process as we bring together school leaders and community stakeholders to shape the vision. A Community Facilitation process is a great way to get community focus on school needs.
Here are five tips to get you started on effectively communicating during a school building referendum:
1. Focus on why, not what.
It’s easy to hone in on the details of the plan and costs. But it’s the “why” behind the project that engages voters. Your “why” should communicate the impact of the project, your school’s value proposition and vision for the future. Avoid using insider school jargon in your communications. Pay attention to the verbs you use and make sure everyone can easily communicate this. Often schools see better results when they turn their why into three key messages that are easily remembered and repeated.
In one example, after working with a community visioning committee to create an educational vision for the school district, we gave each member a stack of red sticky notes and a stack of green sticky notes as they toured the school’s existing facilities. We asked them to put a green sticky where the space matched the vision and a red where it did not. This exercise provided a clear story of how these community members see their current facilities matching up to their educational vision. By the time the district went out for the referendum, the district had a clear story of the “why” of what’s standing in the way for their learning vision, backed up by photos from the sticky note exercise.
Your local media naturally will ask you about the cost of the project and taxpayer impact. Use these opportunities to connect the cost to the impact of those dollars and the specific value they bring. Here’s an illustration: “This $X million project will provide our school district with much needed…. For $X a month, local residents can ensure students receive….” Your community wants to know that the school will be good stewards of the resources and taxpayers will receive a return on their investment.
2. Enliven your why with stories.
School leaders can get so wrapped up sharing the vision and details of the referendum that they forget to share the personal stories. It’s stories, not statistics, that resonate with people. It’s the stories that are remembered and retold. How will the new spaces impact learning? How can students, parents and staff help tell that story? Videos – just recorded from a smartphone –are among the best ways to share stories through your website, email and social media. Take time to create a list of possible stories you can tell and share them using a variety of methods.
3. Create a guiding plan.
Who are your audiences and what tools will you use to communicate with each of them? No matter the size of your community, you have a variety of stakeholders who you need to inform about your school referendum plans. In this plan, you outline the timing of your communication and how you will connect with everyone from your staff, students and parents to business leaders, farmers and other residents. What’s meaningful to one audience may not resonate with another. Map out a communication plan, being mindful that your different audiences resonate with different messages.
4. Start earlier than you think.
Too often, schools wait too long to plan and implement a communication strategy. The time given to develop and execute a communication plan will vary by the size of the district, the current understanding of the community and the scope of the project. While much of the active communication with the community may come during the final six weeks before the vote, effective communication strategies share the story for three months (or much more) leading up to the vote. This does not include the planning that needs to be in place before any communication is created and released.
5. Engage in social media.
This is a step that schools can begin taking even before they decide to move forward with a referendum. Social media provides an opportunity for schools to share what’s happening inside the building’s walls. Give virtual tours, show the needs and share how you are getting results. A district’s Facebook page can be one of the most powerful tools leading up to a referendum vote. Those who are opposed to the referendum certainly will use it. You cannot rely on one person within your district to manage social media. Engage a team.
We live in a 24-7 news cycle and we see people connecting on social media at all hours. One blog post, one Facebook post or one newspaper column can go from published to viral in a matter of moments in communities of all sizes. Will you be ready? Don’t let a lack of communication shoot down your worthy project.
How important is school referendum timing? Get key takeaways from a data analysis of election results.
Start shaping your referendum plan today.