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How one district passed a tax referendum with an 80% approval rate — and how you can repeat their process for success

Pinellas County Schools leaned on community trust earned through their focus on communications and customer service to pass a referendum with a high approval rating.
3 minutes

Funding public education is an ongoing challenge, and many school districts revert to their community to pass tax referendums for much-needed contribution toward operating costs. 

When attempting to pass these tax referendums, school boards and superintendents must confront a big question: Does the community trust the district’s ability to handle current resources and, if allocated, additional funds to effectively support education? The key determinants of successful referendums lie in the community’s perception of the district’s direction, leadership, and overall performance.

For Pinellas County Schools (PCS), these referendums occur every four years and involve a half-millage levy. 

We formed an independent oversight committee, composed of prominent business leaders and community members, to ensure the fulfillment of the promises made for the allocation of referendum funding. We assigned 80% of funds to teacher salaries with the remaining funds directed to supporting performing and visual arts, classroom technology, and reading initiatives — all with the goal of enriching our learning environments beyond the essentials.

Community trust and tax referendums: A vital connection

Central to the success of school tax referendums is the community’s trust in the school district. Residents’ views on the district’s achievement, the overall quality of education, and leadership effectiveness play a pivotal role in determining the outcome of these votes. 

Especially in the current climate, characterized by polarized political views and rampant misinformation, it’s common for school districts to pass referendums narrowly — and many worthy districts have seen their levies fail.

Historically, referendums have triumphed in areas where residents believed the district was moving in the right direction and leadership was deemed effective. 

School district leaders must consider the fact that parents, community members, and even some high school students all vote in elections, and it’s essential to ensure each of them has access to the information they need to make an informed decision. 

While parents may have students enrolled in the district, that doesn’t always guarantee they will show up on election day. Many voters have no personal connection to our schools. That’s why it was essential for us to use a two-way communications tool that provided information for those outside our district. 

How Pinellas County Schools leveraged well-founded trust 

The lead-up to our 2020 referendum, which occurred amid the upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic and a turbulent presidential election, was wrought with questions and uncertainty. 

Our leadership team recognized that maintaining community confidence was crucial. We felt an urgency to dispel misinformation and cultivate trust. 

Our approach to bolstering trust involved open, two-way communication facilitated by K12 Insight’s Let’s Talk platform

By engaging in meaningful conversations and addressing inquiries through Let’s Talk, our district was able to ensure accurate information reached the community. This strategy, coupled with social media and public information sessions, served as a dynamic way to connect with residents and foster trust.

The approach included an accessible “Ask questions about the tax referendum!” feature on the PCS website. This inclusion allowed for a broader reach and ensured that even those without direct ties to our schools could participate and voice their concerns and support.

Thanks to these measures, there was less anxiety and confusion as we approached the school district referendum — despite the challenging political period.

“We passed our referendum with nearly 80% approval.” 

We were thrilled when we heard the results of the 2020 vote. But the success would not have been possible if we’d started our engagement process a month before the vote. The journey of building trust is an unending, ongoing effort that lays the foundation for successful initiatives.

Even beyond levies or bonds, deeply rooted trust and relationships between educational leaders and their community have positive reverberations that can quite literally alter the course of a school district — and therefore the lives of its students.  

In short, it is the journey of customer service and customer satisfaction, built over time by prioritizing community trust and working toward open communications, that allows a school district to make significant strides and become the top choice for families. 

As superintendent of PCS, I worked hard to underscore the significance of open communication, address misinformation, and foster a strong bond between the district and the community. All of these efforts were aided by Let’s Talk’s automatic inquiry routing, which shortened response times, and 24/7 access, which helped every family to participate in district decision-making.   

By starting early and maintaining consistent efforts, education leaders can lay the groundwork for successful referendums that truly serve the best interests of both students and the wider community. 

To start building a foundation of trust and superior customer service in your district, register for a free, no-obligation workshop with one of K12 Insight’s customer service experts. These workshops are available to anyone on your team, can be in-person or virtual, and are entirely free-of-charge. Here’s the link to sign up.

Dr. Michael A. Grego
By Michael A. Grego, Ed. D.
Dr. Michael Grego, Ed.D., is an innovative leader who served in public education in the state of Florida for 42 years, with the last ten of his career as superintendent of Pinellas County Schools. A nationally recognized administrator, Dr. Grego served as the 2020-2021 president of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents and was the 2018 Florida Superintendent of the Year.
Originally published August 15, 2023 Last updated December 1, 2023