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For our latest leadership Thoughtexchange, we partnered with NCERT and Guide K12 to unite superintendents across the US in a discussion about the challenges of passing ballot initiatives and the strategies districts have found successful in overcoming them.
The conversation began with a discussion about the challenges inherent in raising money in a public system.
Failure of the State to provide adequate funding. Because the State has failed to provide inflationary increases to formula funding, districts must try to make up the difference. While state legislators blame districts for needing more money, local district must either cut budgets or ask for more funding to maintain programs.
-Actual thought supported by 21 Superintendents and assigned 72 stars
Time, time, time Our day-to-day operations don’t stop during a campaign. We can campaign during the school day. Communicating the need for a levy is a challenge; it’s like adding a second job to our plate.
-Actual thought supported by 12 Superintendents and assigned 29 stars
New money initiatives are extremely difficult to pass. New money initiatives are extremely difficult to pass, especially the first time on the ballot. That means that resources will be needed more than once. This puts a strain on district and community stakeholders.
-Actual thought supported by 15 Superintendents and assigned 44 stars
The difficulty in communicating the complexity of these challenges to large groups of people emerged as a common sentiment among superintendents.
Adequately communicating the implications of such initiatives. Our stakeholders are better positioned to advocate for needed changes/authorizations when they deeply understand the implications; however, quite often, unless you are in the minutia of what we do, you are unable to grasp the magnitude of legislative decisions on our funding and/or services.
-Actual thought supported by 16 Superintendents and assigned 49 stars
Issues that were very important to smaller groups of superintendents included voter composition and the challenges of getting a supermajority, media led opposition and economic trends that can create pessimism and distrust.
Voter participation Washington requires a 60% + 1 approval for bonds. Getting enough voters to approve bonds is very challenging, especially when parents do not usually vote, but retirees do.
-Actual thought supported by 10 Superintendents and assigned 28 stars
Increased incidence of organized opposition. A handful of cranky taxpayers, on a shoestring budget and a Facebook account, can and often do make a substantial and negative influence on the outcome of a referendum. Distrust of government in general and increased taxes are more prevalent as is a more negative tone in the discourse of school referenda.
-Actual thought supported by 12 Superintendents and assigned 37 stars
Building trust with stakeholders to ensure district actions are perceived as honest and in the best interest of the community was seen as a positive way of countering this. However, many found that the current state of government distrust and public misconceptions made building trust difficult.
General public distrust of government. Makes it challenging to help public see us, our schools, and our staff as us instead of them.
-Actual thought supported by 19 Superintendents and assigned 58 stars
Trust Many districts, including my own, face a lack of trust in our community for how we spend “taxpayer dollars” and in some cases previous referendum dollars.
-Actual thought supported by 15 Superintendents and assigned 43 stars
Strategy 1: Engaging in Person with Diverse Groups
When it came to building trust, the entire group believed that community engagement during non-ballot years was critical. Many superintendents prioritized townhalls and meetings in the community with different interest groups such as senior citizens, civic groups and agencies as effective strategies for keeping diverse groups engaged.
Events for senior citizens. We host quarterly events for folks over 60. We use this time to highlight student/staff success and give them time to visit with friends. They can also attend our arts/drama events at no charge.
-Actual thought supported by 18 Superintendents and assigned 46 stars
Meeting annually with civic groups/agencies to update and answer questions. Prepare key information about the district for service clubs, Chamber of Commerce, City Council, League of Women Voters, etc., and be available to field questions even when not running election campaigns.
-Actual thought supported by 21 Superintendents and assigned 61 stars
Strategy 2: Online Community Engagement
Online community engagement also emerged as a solution that many superintendents used to address the issues of communicating complexity, reaching a broader stakeholder base and building trust.
Use Thoughtexchange to take the pulse of the community on a regular basis. By using Thoughtexchange before we begin any kind of campaign, we reach out to the broader community to find out how they are feeling and learn what concerns they have and what questions they have about our school district. If we work to address these issues/questions, we can build voter trust.
-Actual thought supported by 13 Superintendents and assigned 47 stars
These two strategies share the common theme of proactively building and maintaining relationships with the community, specifically communicating areas of student success and following up on any promises, as well as creating meaningful opportunities for the schools and community to communicate and interact.
During the Share step, where Superintendents shared the strategies they found successful, the group was divided almost equally between online community engagement and townhall meetings. At the end of the Thoughtexchange process, after value was assigned to the ideas that resonated most, there was a small shift towards the Thoughtexchange users’ open and transparent communication interests.
Strategy 3: Connecting with Legislators
The next step for many superintendents was to build stronger relationships with their local legislators. Thoughtexchange’s ability to capture the collective narrative of the broader community has potential advantages here as it reinforces that the issues being raised by superintendents come from the public they represent.
Legislators Stay connected to your legislators, especially on items related to school funding. Ask your legislators to speak on your behalf to add credibility to the message.
-Actual thought supported by 20 Superintendents and assigned 52 stars
Visit legislators at least 2 x per year. Knowing legislators as individuals and supporting initiatives when possible makes the challenging phone calls or visits later a bit easier.
-Actual thought supported by 15 Superintendents and assigned 42 stars
What are your thoughts?
Share your perspectives by commenting below, or email us with your ideas for blog posts that could further this discussion.