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Why School Referenda Fail: Research and Best Practices for Success

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Results of tax referenda over time vary significantly from state to state for a variety of reasons. In any given year, however, upwards of 50% of all school referenda seeking operating money or bonding are unsuccessful.

Some factors such as demographics, the economy, anti-tax politics, and the presence of organized opposition are contributing factors and out of a district’s control. Other factors, including harnessing research-based best practices and understanding how to capture and effectively use available data sets are mostly or fully within control of leadership and the school board. Below are 10 key research-based factors associated with unsuccessful referenda. And if you are wondering why not the “Top 10 Tips for Winning,” read on after going through the list below!

1. Lack of unanimity and support from school board

Split school boards, factions of the school board working against the referendum, or perceptions that the school board is not united and supportive negatively impact referenda. Split school boards give the uninformed within the community a reason to oppose.

2. Lack of alignment in ballot proposal

Alignment in a school district’s ballot proposal has two dimensions: (1) how the new money is going to be used; and (2) the tax impact associated with the requested investment in the public schools. It is critically important that the school board and administration get both components of alignment right. One way to inform the decision about the ballot proposal is to use a well-designed scientific, random-sample survey.

3. Failure to demonstrate a compelling need and consequences (positive and negative) of the referendum

Unlike political campaigns, in which voters can identify with party affiliation and perceptions about the past record and qualifications of the candidate, school referenda are reliant on information alone:

    1. What is being proposed?
    2. How will the money be used?
    3. Why is it necessary?
    4. How much will it cost me?

To convince voters to voluntarily raise their taxes to invest in public schools requires clear and compelling information. No voter should go to the polls uninformed.

4. Controversy, lack of trust, or “climate” issues within the school district and between the school district and the community

Contentious issues are part and parcel to the business of running a school district and can be more problematic in times of financial stress. It is incumbent on the school board, administration, and staff to be mutually supportive, proactively anticipate and solve problems before they become unmanageable, initiate quality control systems, and work to strengthen relationships internally and within the community to offset the negative impact of inevitable distractions.

5. Poor public relations, communications, or hostile local media

Research clearly demonstrates the importance of effective and ongoing communications and public engagement as a foundation from which to launch a successful referendum. Maintaining a respectful and positive relationship with local media is also linked to success over time.

6. Referendum conducted prematurely

It takes the time it takes to get it right. Waiting until the school district is ready, with the prerequisite foundation in place, is best practice if the school board has the luxury of having a legitimate choice about moving forward now or waiting until the school district is better prepared and positioned for success.

7. Inadequate planning, execution, and commitment of resources (time, talent, and treasure) by school district

Executing successful referenda is complex, challenging, and dependent on good planning and the commitment of human and financial resources. Coordination between the school district’s administration of the referendum and the advocacy work of the campaign committee is paramount.

8. Inadequate planning, execution, and commitment resources (time, talent, and treasure) by campaign committee

Most successful school referenda are dependent upon a grassroots advocacy group organized to support the referendum proposal in coordination with the school district. Planning and executing a winning campaign requires commitment, expertise, and sufficient resources, particularly in the “Big Three”: communications, canvassing, and GOTV (Get Out the Vote). Poor execution of GOTV, resulting in lower than optimal turnout of key voter targets, is often a contributing factor to defeat.

9. Demographics and socioeconomic factors

There are many demographic and socioeconomic factors that affect the outcome of referenda. In terms of demographics, parents of school-age children typically make up only 15-25% of registered voters in the average school district. Aging of the baby boomers is also impactful with the count of folks over 65 years-old now greater than the total number of all K-12 students. Economic conditions and consumer confidence are also important drivers in referendum success rates. Conditions of high inflation and low consumer confidence steepen the challenge leading up to Election Day.

10. Critical or unexpected events

Factors totally outside the control of the school district can occur and adversely affect the outcome of a referendum. These critical or unexpected events could range from a stock market crash to the invasion of Ukraine to global pandemics to political polarization around such controversies as critical race theory. The timing and severity of such events have the potential to encourage organized opposition and torpedo even a well-planned referendum campaign.

So inquiring minds want to know…
Why emphasize these ten research-based factors associated with unsuccessful school referenda rather than focusing on the positive in terms of the “Top 10 Tips for Winning” as referenced in the opening paragraph?

Two reasons:

First, while the professional literature is replete with such “how to” lists (including some I have authored!), the tips are often anecdotal rather than research-based, and they tend to be tactical (e.g., our teachers took out an advertisement in the local paper) rather than “big picture” strategic.

Second, experience over time has taught me that starting with broad factors associated with unsuccessful referenda motivates school leaders to process how each factor will or could influence a future referendum in their unique environment, and then to strategically plan to eliminate or minimize the potential negative impact of a given factor. The challenge and opportunity for school leaders is to understand and analyze contextual factors (e.g., wealth, age, education level) not within the district’s control and then to act strategically on the mirror images of the factors listed above, developing a comprehensive referendum plan on a foundation of research and best practice.

Developing a winning strategy for your referendum is greatly enhanced when school leaders understand how to access and use voter data obtained from public and commercial sources in order to identify a campaign target structure that extends beyond just parents. Your voter target structure can then be harnessed by powerful geovisual software tools to support execution of canvassing, communications, and GOTV.