School bond dollars remain a vital component in helping schools realize their visions, whether that vision is building a new high school or growing the district’s bandwidth capacity. In 2017 alone, $46.6 billion in bonds were passed in the United States.
But school leaders who have been through the process of trying to get a school bond passed in their community know that there’s no magic formula to ensure success. Many districts need to secure approval from communities where as few as 20 percent of the population are families with children in the district. How do you convince the other 80 percent of your voting community to approve school funding?
Below, author and former superintendent Don Lifto shares his tips for getting school bonds approved in challenging communities:
1. Do your homework: School district leaders need to do their research. What’s worked in other similar districts and how can you replicate these strategies? Connect with your colleagues in those districts to get their advice and feedback.
2. Know your voters: Understanding your community’s makeup of parents, pre-school families, alum, and past supporters, as well as data from commercial databases, can be powerful tools for planning, canvassing, targeting messages, and implementing get-out-the-vote strategies.
3. Demographic mapping: Use tools that allow you to merge census data, which includes registered voter and parent data, to better understand your district’s makeup.
4. Conduct a feasibility survey: What does your community value? How much are they willing to pay in higher taxes? A high-quality, random-sample phone survey, controlled to mirror the demographics of the district, helps align the ballot proposal with what a majority of voters will support. One of the most important questions to ask in your community survey is: “How would you rate the quality of the education in your public schools—excellent, good, fair, or poor?” It’s not surprising that when more than 17 percent of the public give their public schools fair or poor marks, the vast majority of school elections fail.
5. Drive your district story: Districts that share positive stories with local media and their communities throughout the year have a more positive impression with their voters. Develop an ongoing public relations campaign in which all communication-related messages are part of a comprehensive communication system planned and coordinated at the district level.
6. Make the connections: How, specifically, will these dollars benefit your voting community? Districts need to make the connection between the purpose of the bond and the cost of the bond. Use focused messages for different audiences that emphasize the positive impact the school bond dollars will have. For example, invite local businesses in to show them the important career skills that students/future employees will learn through access to increased technology. Invite non-parents to come in as special guests for science fairs where they can see the positive outcome of their tax dollars in action.
7. Get your community involved: Invite local retired experts to mentor students in their areas of expertise. Partner with local businesses on internship opportunities. Engaging your community is an excellent way to get buy-in for your work.
8. Voters love gadgets: Communities like to be perceived as innovative and tech savvy. A recent study of Oklahoma bond campaigns, for example, found that elections were six times more likely to pass if they included an investment in technology. As you tell your district story throughout the year, focus on programs that showcase ways that your district is an innovative hub for technology.
9. Reflection: No matter what the outcome of the school bond election is, take time to understand and analyze what went right and what went wrong and integrate these lessons as you prepare for your next election. Ask questions like: Did parents participate in the school finance election? Why or why not? What can the next campaign learn from the participation of non-parent supporters? The answers to questions like these form the “lesson” for planners of your next election.
Don Lifto is a former Minnesota superintendent, the author of “School Finance Elections: A Comprehensive Planning Model for Success, 2nd Edition” and dozens of articles on referendum planning published in national journals. He is a consultant for schoolbondfinder.com, an online database that tracks K–12 bond-funded capital improvement projects in the US.