Voting for Schools: 4 Engagement Strategies to Build Support

Shonagh MacRae K-12

In last week’s blog post Voting for Schools: 3 Types of Alignment I discussed the importance of aligning cost, content and board opinion when working towards a ballot measure.

This discussion was based on an interview with Dr. Don Lifto, co-author of School Finance Elections: A Comprehensive Planning Model for Success and a long-time Superintendent who now consults and supports school districts as they work to fund the future of education.

The starting point for my interview with Dr. Lifto was our latest Leadership Thoughtexchange, in which Superintendents across the US shared the challenges they face obtaining support for school finance referenda.

This week I’ll cover another part of my conversation with Dr. Lifto in which we focused on one of the biggest challenges in finding alignment: some costs and some content cannot be changed.  A building costs what a building costs.

This is often why districts hold bond elections despite knowing that the measure probably lacks enough support to pass. In Dr. Lifto’s experience there are two reasons why this approach is never in the district’s best interest.

First, failure can beget failure. There is a strong correlation between the outcome of the previous ballot and the outcome of the current one. One bond failure can set a district up for a second failure.

Second, failure can lead to pain and blame. A huge amount of work goes into formulating a ballot measure, and if it fails, people want to understand why. A worthwhile examination of process can spiral into a cycle of finger-pointing and blame – relationships are damaged and the process takes two steps backward.

According to Dr. Lifto, a district faced with a tough-to-pass ballot measure should pursue a strategic and robust, four-part engagement plan.

1 – Ongoing Engagement

Ongoing engagement needs to be a foundational value in school districts. The only thing that should change when you are going out for a bond is the content of the message, not the methods or the frequency.

When does your community hear from you and your school leaders? Are your messages consistent and do you understand how your parents and staff like to receive information?

2 – Strategic Relationship Building

Whenever he is supporting a district in planning and executing a bond strategy, Dr. Lifto is always interested in how often the Superintendent meets with the City Council or the Chamber of Commerce. More often than not, these meetings are set up infrequently and intuitively. He recommends setting aside time each quarter to meet with these strategically important groups. Topics of conversation can include defining mutual goals, comparing debt issuance plan schedules as well as understanding their organizational context and goals.

The value of understanding referendum schedules also came up in our last Leadership Thoughtexchange through a thought that was starred by 11 leaders:

Competing municipal interests. Schools are not the only municipal services competing for tax dollars. Public safety, seniors, public works, etc. are all in the same place. When these interests compete at the same time, as often is the case, it can overwhelm taxpayers.

– Actual thought provided in the March 2016 Leadership Thoughtexchange


3 – Staff Buy-In

Teachers and administrators are touch points for the district. Parents get to know teachers well, and because of this, teachers can influence the parent perspective. They also tend to live in the community and so are a source of votes and volunteers. Dr. Lifto has found that failed bond measures can often be linked to low support from teachers.

When was the last time that you engaged teachers in strategic planning or in creating a vision for your district? Do they feel overlooked or appreciated?


4 – Addressing Organized Opposition

It is tempting to ignore organized opposition. It is much more effective to bring them into the conversation and attempt to understand their concerns and criticisms. Their feedback can be used to refine and improve the ballot measure and ensure they feel heard and valued.

Another approach mentioned by Dr. Lifto is highlighting facts and stories that these groups support that could also soften their opposition. This could be describing the thoughtful use of tax dollars or sharing student success stories that came out of previous funding initiatives.

What strategies have you used to manage organized opposition? Is it becoming a bigger challenge now that social media can amplify the voices of a few? What are your thoughts?
While there are other engagement considerations, taking a strategic and long-term approach helps get staff involved and can help harness the energy and impact of organized opposition. What results is a stronger foundation for future community support.

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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