In our latest Leadership Thoughtexchange, we asked education leaders across the US about the key challenges they face when trying to pass ballot initiatives.
One top thought focused on the relationship between voter demographic and media narratives.
Voters tend to be older, and conservative and anti-tax initiatives. It is hard to convince them to invest in education, especially with the constant drum beat of “failing” education and “greedy” teachers. Instances of poor teacher behavior and (District) difficulties in addressing the behavior also contribute to a negative perception of teachers.”
– Actual thought supported by 12 superintendents and assigned 42 stars
Another pointed to the downturn in the economy and the perception that certain factors are beyond the control of school districts:
Economy. You are battling economic realities that are out of your control.
– Actual thought supported by 15 superintendents and assigned 40 stars
Are external factors – communicating complexity, low state funding, tax fatigue, voter demographics – so strong that they, in effect, hijack the process?
Discussing the results with Dr. Don Lifto, co-author of School Finance Elections: A Comprehensive Planning Model for Success and a longtime Superintendent who now consults and supports school districts as they work to fund the future of education, I was curious about his perspective. Does a well-planned, strategic approach help?
According to Dr. Lifto, while there are challenging external factors, taking a studied and planned approach is both effective and necessary for consistent success in passing ballot initiatives.
Dr. Lifto points out that seeking an education in bond planning requires leaders to become active learners as there are few formal programs. However, the payoff is a united and cohesive community where student learning is funded appropriately.
This post is the first in our series with Dr. Lifto and focuses on the power of alignment.
1 – Aligning the Content of the Ballot Measure
One of the first places to look for alignment is in the content of the ballot measure. Does it align with community priorities and values? If a community prioritizes academics and the district is looking for $10M to build a new sports arena, there is clear misalignment and a lowered chance of success.
What is the purpose of your ballot measure and can you connect it in a compelling way to community values?
2 – Aligning the Cost of the Ballot Measure
Another key area of alignment is cost. Dr. Lifto finds that in conversations with district leaders, cost is often seen as immutable – a middle school costs what it costs after all. However, if the overall cost of the ballot measure does not align with what the community is willing to invest then the measure is unlikely to pass.
3 – Aligning the Opinions of the Board
Finally, does the proposal align with the perspectives of the school board? When the proposal goes to the board vote, are they all in favor or is there a split down the middle? The power of board alignment can’t be understated as, according to Dr. Lifto, voters who are on the fence will often take a cue from district leaders. If board members can’t support an initiative, why should they?
While thoughtful discussion can work to align board opinion, the content and cost of a ballot measure can feel out of a leader’s control – facilities naturally degrade over time and costs are often fixed. However, engaging the community and shaping the local narrative of education in the district can influence both factors.
Our next post will focus on the power of symbolic communication in shaping the local narrative as well as effective ways to engage with organized opposition groups.
What are your thoughts? What are some creative ways you have developed alignment in your community?