How Important is School Referendum Timing?

It seems like everyone has a theory on how the calendar impacts the success of a school building referendum. Some advocate for November, except in the case of a presidential election year. Some say avoid November no matter what. Others say May because spring is breaking and folks feel good while others say September because of the energy that comes with the start of school. I have my own theory based on my experience working with schools over the years.

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Does the month that you conduct a referendum vote matter? It’s a question we pondered at IIW Minnesota as the Minnesota Legislature recently narrowed the special election options for school districts to five dates in February, April, May, August and November. We decided to look at the data.

To answer the question, IIW Minnesota analyzed referendum results for school districts in Minnesota since 2010, and compared them to the prevailing theories we’ve heard. Here is what we found:

  • “Avoid April.”
    The theory here is don’t ask people to vote for a referendum (tax increase) around Tax Day. The data supported this theory with April stacking up to be the month when the highest percentage of school building referendums fail. March is not much better. Since 2010, only 40 percent of the referendum questions posed in March and April passed.
  • “May provides an opportunity.”
    While the end of the school year is a busy time for schools, it can be among the best times to hold a special election. Throughout the school year, districts have an opportunity to engage and educate their community on the facility plan as well as actively showcase the successes and needs happening within the school’s walls. And people tend to perk up in the spring. In recent years, 51 percent of building referendums prevailed in May.
  • “Leverage Back-to-School energy.”
    There certainly is a special natural energy that comes with the start of a school year. It also can be a busy time for schools with staff training, planning and open houses. Does the positive energy of the start of school help referendum results? Maybe. Building referendum questions posed in August and September passed 58 percent of the time. That’s the second highest pass rate, behind November when there is not a presidential election.
  • “Avoid November, especially a presidential election year.”
    The data shows that November has been by far the most popular and effective month to go out for a building referendum. In fact, referendum questions passed 64 percent of the time during November elections, making it the most successful time to hold an election. However, whether it is a presidential election year does matter. Votes held in November during a presidential election year passed at a rate of 51 percent while those posed during non-presidential years yielded a success rate of 66 percent. That puts the building referendum pass rate in November during presidential years similar as May questions – and far better than special elections held in March or April.

What’s my theory?
My theory is that the best time to hold a referendum election is when your community believes you should hold it. I believe, and the analysis supports, that the most important factor in the success of a referendum is not when it is held, but rather how well the community is prepared for the referendum.

It is natural to want to run to the polls with the idea as soon as you have it. But a referendum won’t be successful unless the community has been engaged, understands the reason for the referendum and, frankly, only if it is the community’s idea. Community engagement takes time.

A school referendum process starts with engaging a broad group of stakeholders in the visioning phase. It needs to include intensive listening and consistently communicating with your community more than six weeks before the vote. The process matters. Take the time and the support follows. In my career, all but two of the projects I worked on passed the first time.

We now have a wild card that is expected to sway more positive results with the adoption of the Ag2School tax credit. However, avoid rushing in. The preparedness of a district and its community are still the best indicators of a successful referendum. This is a great tool – but if you haven’t engaged and prepared your community, your likelihood of success is reduced.

View a sample referendum timeline.

Download step-by-step guide to engaging your community.