Voting for Schools: 3 Types of Alignment

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?

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.

Comments 2

  1. Your comments on alignment are right on point. If the board does not share a unified vision, the issue is doomed. Understanding the community’s priorities, tolerance for debt, etc. is critical, too. Both the size and purpose of the project have to meet community standards. There has to be sufficient conversation to accurately take the pulse of the board and community. Skeptics should be listened to and involved in the process rather than silenced or driven underground, or a “Vote No” campaign could arise just before the vote. As community meetings take place, featuring a well formulated narrative and not merely dry facts, be sure to go meet people where they are rather than expecting people to come into a school facility for the meeting. I speak from experience. I was part of turning an 85% “No” vote into an 85% “Yes” vote.

    1. Thanks so much for your feedback! I love your point about not silencing skeptics and, instead, involving them in the process. I also appreciate your point about creating a compelling narrative – dry facts do not inspire and education stories really do have the potential to capture the imagination.

      It would be great to hear more about your story.

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