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Getting It Passed: Lessons from Successful School Bond Campaigns

We’re only a few weeks away from election day 2018.

If TV news is any indication, this election is proving to be one of the most heated in recent history. And while pundits are concentrating on who’ll be the next governor, senator, or congressperson in a given state, voters will be deciding on a lot more than leadership come early November.

For many school district leaders, this election could have enormous implications on the future of their schools. Successfully passed, school bond and levy measures can provide millions in public funding and resources for districts to build new schools or make much-needed improvements.

If all politics is local, voting for or against school bonds or levies represent one of the most direct ways voters can impact their local community.

In California alone, nearly 90 communities will vote on authorizing school construction projects worth a combined $12 billion this November, according to CALmatters.

With so much at stake, and so little time left until the vote, district leaders are pulling out all the stops to ensure that community members understand, and ultimately support, important local ballot measures.

We recently asked school leaders who have successfully passed bond measures in their districts about how they got it done. Here’s five lessons we learned. Pro tip: It’s all about how you communicate your vision.

1. Listen to stakeholders

While it may be late in the game, understanding the needs of every stakeholder group and including them in the planning process is absolutely vital to a successful school bond campaign. When Huffman ISD in Texas failed to raise money for a new middle school in 2002, administrators realized a big reason for the failure was that they hadn’t properly involved the community in the process. “We learned the importance of two-way communication from that initial experience,” says Shirley Dupree, the district’s executive director of communications. Since then, the district has launched a series of school surveys to understand the goals of community members, and successfully passed two bond measures, including one for $44 million in 2016.

2. Build your proposal around community needs

Barlow School District in Oregon spent two years listening to community members to understand priorities for students, gather community perceptions about their schools, and develop a plan for improvement. Taking the time to collaborate with community members paid off. In 2016, voters approved a $291 million bond to improve 17 school buildings.

“The final bond package that you present to voters should reflect the goals and priorities of your community,” says Athena Vadnais, APR, director of communications for Barlow School District and Northwest Regional Vice President for the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA). “Listening to stakeholders, and then acting on the feedback you get, is what makes the difference.”

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3. Personalize your message for different audiences

Understanding community priorities is important, but school districts still need to do a bit of selling to garner support for bond measures. As with any successful communications campaign, you need to understand the different groups that make up your district, and develop specific messages that appeal to their interests and priorities. “Think about the information needs of each group you are trying to reach,” says Vadnais. “What do they need to know about your school bond proposal, based on their goals, priorities, and interests?”

4. Use multiple channels of communication

In today’s always-on media environment, you have more ways to communicate with your community than ever. Ignoring critical channels could potentially make or break your bond campaign. Barlow School District used a combination of local news media, face-to-face communication, direct mail, and social media to appeal to voters in its most recent bond campaign–and it worked!

According to Vadnais:

“Direct mail is good for getting information into the hands of voters who don’t have a daily connection with your schools. Social media is an easy and cost-effective way to communicate with people. Face-to-face communication is the most time-consuming, but it’s also the most effective way to communicate. Go where the voters are. Go to civic club meetings. Go to your local diner, where retirees hang out in the mornings—and share information about your bond with them.”

5. Engage your community in a ‘two-way’ conversation

No matter what stage you are at in your bond campaign, it’s vital to engage in an ongoing, two-way conversation with your community. After failing to pass a couple of previous bonds, Saline Area Schools in Michigan recently passed a $65 million bond aimed at rebuilding district infrastructure and integrating technology into classrooms. Superintendent Scott Graden credits the successful campaign to improved communication, especially the district’s use of Let’s Talk!, a two-way community engagement and customer service solution that helps administrators talk to community members about critical school-related issues.

“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,” Graden says.

Does your district have a school bond measure on the ballot this November? What strategies have you put in place for communicating with your community? Tell us in the comments.