Voting for Schools: 3 Factors in Your Control

After our last Leadership Thoughtexchange, I spoke with Dr. Don Lifto, co-author of School Finance Elections: A Comprehensive Planning Model for Success about some of the challenges Superintendents across the US shared during this conversation. We discussed 3 Types of Alignment and 4 Keys to Engagement, insights that have come out of his work consulting and supporting school districts as they work to fund the future of education.

In the two blog posts that came out of this conversation, the idea of control, or a lack thereof, was a thread that ran through many of Lifto’s suggestions. This sentiment was also clearly expressed in our last Leadership Thoughtexchange through a thought that was starred by 14 leaders:

“You are battling economic realities that are out of your control.”

While there are things that a leader cannot control, several factors that will impact the success of referenda initiatives seeking additional funding for bond issuance, operations or technology can be influenced during the planning and engagement process.

1 – Planning and Preparation

According to Dr. Lifto, taking an organized and planned approach is essential to success. He recommends laying out all the relevant steps and tasks in an excel spreadsheet or critical path. Tracking the project consistently, including the tasks that have been complete, those that still need to be done and any changes along the way will ensure details do not get overlooked. It is also critical that this detailed planning coordinates, but also differentiates, the roles of the school board and administration along with the advocacy campaign.

This kind of preparation requires district leaders to become active learners (an approach discussed in 3 Types of Alignment). While Dr. Lifto acknowledges that finding effective resources and laying them out in a planned way requires effort, he believes that this offers the greatest opportunity for success.

2 – Timing

One of the biggest factors that a leader can control is when the referendum is held. Sometimes external partners have competing needs that can impact the timeline. This often arises in the planning of construction schedules. Being sensitive to outside influences ensures that the campaign is run with success in mind rather than the business goals of partners.

In trying to assess readiness, Dr. Lifto believes the litmus test lies in one question:

What would be your community’s reaction to a front-page article about your school board taking action to put a referendum on the ballot be? – shock (“Where did that come from!”) or no surprise whatsoever (because of significant engagement over time).

If you feel anything but fully prepared, you need more time.

3 – Local Narrative

In our last Leadership Thoughtexchange, 39 leaders expressed a concern about the negative media narrative around education.

Within the media narrative, however, one place that can be overlooked is the local media. A pre-election, scientific, random-sample survey can quantify how stakeholders get their information about the District and what sources are most important. When local media is a dominant outlet, it can often be a primary source of information for community members, and Dr. Lifto believes that leaders can capitalize on this by contributing articles, sending news releases and developing relationships with editors.

Harnessing the local media to recapture and develop a positive narrative about education can go a long way in not only making sure that stakeholders are informed, but that they understand the complexities of the plan being put forward – sharing pieces of the plan over time rather than the entire proposal at once.

There are many factors at play when a district goes out for a referendum, but it is worthwhile to identify and tackle key areas that can influence the outcome.

What are your thoughts? Do you think working with local media is an effective way to keep stakeholders informed or do you use other ways to get information to parents and voters?

About the Author

Shonagh MacRae

Shonagh is our Director of Discover and describes herself as continually curious about people. This curiosity led her to a Master’s in Organizational Psychology where she learned a whole lot about how humans interact in groups and how to support them. Shonagh has also spent a lot of time in her community supporting at-risk populations. This work further honed her ability to connect with a broad range of personalities. When she’s not working with Thoughtexchange, Shonagh is most often found out in the garden with her hands in the soil.

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