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How to pass your next bond measure

When’s the last time you passed a bond measure in your community?

Asking taxpayers to back what amounts to a multimillion dollar public loan for school improvements has historically been a tough sell for school leaders—made even tougher in the wake of recent economic struggles.

You’ve heard the saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try again.” For Scot Graden, superintendent of Saline Area Schools in Michigan, that same saying might end, “try something new.”

How to carry a vote
It took taxpayers in Saline five years and three separate votes to finally approve a $67.5 million bond for critical facilities upgrades in the district.

In an article this week in The Edvocate, Graden says several factors, including smarter accounting and an improved economy, played a role. But it was community engagement, in the end, that made the difference at the polls.

Looking to galvanize support for the bond measure, which district officials will use to build modern classrooms and prepare students for a changing workforce, Graden and his team launched a survey and online feedback tool to gauge community sentiment. The goal: to clear up any confusion and give parents and other community members a voice ahead of the vote.

“While some educators fear that inviting community feedback will lead to a deluge of complaints, it’s simply not the case,” writes Graden of his district’s experience. “When people understand that you’re listening, it sends a message to the community.”

Know your audience
Surveys conducted in advance of the latest bond vote showed that a majority of local residents believed the school system’s facilities to be in relatively good shape. Armed with that knowledge, district officials opted to shift their message. Instead of focusing on a need for long-standing building improvements, they emphasized the importance of making the district “future-ready.”

In late 2015, the Saline community approved the bond with 60 percent of the vote, the widest pass rate of any tax increase in Michigan at the time.

Writes Graden: “By the time voters arrived at the polls, they understood our position, had an opportunity to voice their concerns, and trusted us to spend their money wisely.”

If you’re struggling to win support for a bond in your district, or you anticipate challenges on Election Day, take a hard look at how you engage your community on the topic. Voters are notoriously skittish of tax hikes. If you don’t understand, or can’t openly address, their concerns about your bond, that skepticism will only fester.

How do you communicate with your community about important school funding projects? Tell us in the comments.

Are you looking for a better way to bring your community into funding conversations early? Start here.