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3 Steps in Developing Your Referendum Strategy

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Each year brings a new adventure for school district administrators. And for some districts, that means tackling a new referendum with their community.
While the district may fully understand the need for a referendum, often the challenge is justifying it to the local taxpayers, who may not understand the resource needs and constraints of the district. In order to make informed decisions, voters need access to accurate and reliable information about the proposed projects and their costs, and that’s where Data-Based Decision Support Systems (DSS) can be extremely helpful.
To be successful, districts must develop a three-step strategic framework by which they can communicate the district needs, the reasons for those needs and the data that supports those arguments. The success or failure of passing a referendum can many times be traced back to the transparency process and how well informed the public was.

Establishing the “Why”

Begin the development of your strategic framework by connecting why you are doing something to the “what” and how you plan on doing it. Establishing this relationship is key to creating value and understanding of your initiative. Support your “why” by outlining the important factors that led to your decision.
As an example, if a district needs to increase its operating rate, some factors that lead to that conclusion may include:

  • Need to upgrade facilities
  • Technology upgrades such as a new 1-to-1 program
  • Lack of state funding
  • Tax rates have not risen in several years due to tax caps, and Equalized Assessed Value (EAV) has remained flat, while operational costs continue to increase

These factors help create the arguments that you need to allow stakeholders to understand your decision-making process. This is the point in your strategic framework where you begin to develop and create analytics and other evidence that you will present to advocate your position. It is important to stay focused on your arguments and present data that supports and defends them.
Avoid the tendency to include every accessible data point in your presentation. This will only serve to distract your audience from the issue at hand and will likely lead to an off-topic discussion.
A great rule of thumb to follow: If the data does not support your arguments, or is irrelevant to the discussion, do not include it. Every presentation slide and data point should serve to communicate why the referendum is necessary for the district to achieve its goals and continue operations.

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Establishing the “What”

This is the step of your strategic framework in which you will dive deep into the data to identify which data points are concrete and will support the arguments you established. An easy way to do this is by asking yourself, “What data points support these claims, and is the data available for me to capture?” That second question is critical because it helps identify if an argument will have the needed context and support, and ultimately help determine if it is strong enough to use in communications.
If the only data available is anecdotal, you should prepare for stakeholders to challenge it. Unless it is a highly valuable point, consider removing it from your communications. To see what this looks like in action, imagine you have a scenario where operational costs are outpacing CPI — and due to tax caps, are causing a budget deficit. When outlining the supporting data points, start to identify higher-level information first, then drill down into the metadata.

Example data points:

  • Historical Data Trends
  • Comparison Metrics, Peer Revenues and Expenses
  • Projected Finances
  • Enrollment Trends
  • Historical Tax Rates and EAV
  • State Funding Trends and Projections

A data-based decision support system or DSS can be especially helpful in gathering quantitative data. A DSS collects data from various sources, such as cost estimates, construction plans, and demographic information, and presents it in an easily accessible and understandable format. This provides voters with the information they need to make informed decisions about school bond referendums.
Another advantage of using a DSS in the context of school bond referendums is increased transparency and accountability. By providing access to accurate and reliable data, DSS can help build public trust and support for the proposed projects, making it more likely that they will be approved.

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So how can you ensure that your school district is using a DSS effectively in the context of school bond referendums? Here are a few best practices to keep in mind:

  1. Ensure that data is up-to-date and accurate:
    Regularly updating data is critical to ensuring that the information presented in the DSS is accurate and relevant.
  2. Use visual aids to present data and results:
    Data visualization tools, such as charts and graphs, can help make the information presented in the DSS more accessible and understandable to voters.
  3. Involve all relevant stakeholders in the decision-making process:
    This includes school district officials, community members, and voters. By involving all stakeholders in the decision-making process, you can ensure that the information presented in the DSS is relevant and useful.


Establishing the “How”

The agenda you established in the strategic framework needs to be put into place with a well-developed communication plan. Organize the gathered information in a short and simple format that tells the whole story, connecting the reason for the referendum to specific supporting evidence. Leverage visual analytics to enhance understanding. Never assume your audience will draw the same conclusions you are without being led there. Note: It may be valuable to include the perspective of what the impact will be in the near and long term if the referendum is not passed.
Developing a well thought-out communication strategy that is built around solid, data-based evidence and that can be delivered with passion and conviction through a visual analytics story will give your district the best chance of achieving your referendum objectives.


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