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FOLLOW-UP WITH SUPERINTENDENTS WHO WERE INVOLVED IN UNSUCCESSFUL REFERENDA IN NOVEMBER 2010

Dr. Jerry R. Holifield,
Former Plainfield School Superintendent

Eleven Indiana school corporations out of the seventeen involved in a referendum in November had communities that did not provide sufficient "yes" votes to support the referenda.  An interview with eight of the eleven superintendents (in one case the business manager) revealed that the reasons given for having their referenda fail were similar to reports from last year: Current economic conditions, voter resistance to higher taxes, organized community opposition, a perception that tax dollars had not been spent prudently in the past, and a lack of understanding of the sources of tax dollars and how the funds are spent. Another reason reported to be a barrier was if the school corporation already had a high debt service rate. Several superintendents mentioned the anti-tax mood around the country. 

The superintendents who were interviewed provided comments resulting in the recommendations below. Most of the additional responses were influenced by previous interviews with a larger number of superintendents who have experienced successful referenda.

1. Start planning your campaign early and begin identifying community leaders who will likely provide an endorsement for the referendum. Use these endorsements during the campaign, including letters sent to the editor and posted on your website near the end of the campaign.  One superintendent stated, "We should have been more intentional in our securing community leader support." Several reported wishing they had started the planning process earlier.  A superintendent who experienced a successful general fund referendum last May indicated that he has already initiated strategies for his next referendum, which is approximately six and one-half years from now. 

2. Make sure you have a cohesive board that supports the referendum and make sure they will be an advocate during the campaign.  While it is important for one board member to be the spokesperson for the board, all members should be aware of the student needs and should be supportive out in the community. One superintendent stated, "Our board wavered and were too silent in their support.” Another said, "It was significant that we did not have the support of all of our board members.” Two superintendents reported they felt that a former board member had an impact on the results of the campaign, one positive and one negative.  A campaign specialist reported that when he meets with school board members who are initiating a referendum, he tells them the voters will view the board and the superintendent as the "candidate.”  He stated, "A lack of effort or one off-the-cuff statement can be extremely detrimental to their campaign." One board president of a successful construction referendum contacted all former board members to solicit their support. Board members only have one vote in the voting booth; however, they have a great deal of influence in the community.

3. Involve the community in determining what it is they want for their children. Make a significant effort to bring the community into the decision, in order to help them understand why approval of the referendum is needed.  This strategy will foster more vocal community support. Collaboration and community engagement are extremely important.  As one superintendent commented, "We had a lack of visible community support. We had people who supported us silently."  Being a little frustrated by the lack of success, he added, "We had a lack of proactiveness by our community. They would rather see things get ugly before they step in and try to help.” Another superintendent, who experienced a successful referendum, recently stated, "It is critical that you gather data, seek community input, and provide multiple opportunities to hear and respond to the data.” A community engagement specialist for an architectural firm recommends that the initial planning committee have 30 to 40 members and that the PAC have 40 to 50 members. The purpose of the larger committees is to increase community involvement, foster a more positive campaign, and secure a majority of "yes" votes.

4. Hire someone with referendum experience to help you through the process. There are a variety of sources. Architectural firms, for example, have community engagement specialists on staff. These individuals utilize techniques to analyze voting data and engage the community, techniques that most superintendents have not yet learned.  These consultants will likely recommend the use of a professional pollster to determine the level of support for what is being considered. One superintendent reported, "We had a lack of political campaigning experience.” He also stated, "We were unprepared to counteract the 'no' campaign.” 

5. Help the community understand the sources of funding and that capital project funds cannot be used for teacher salaries. Three superintendents reported that some of their construction activities in the past—especially two that involved athletic facilities—caused confusion, maybe anger, in the voters. As one superintendent stated, "There was a major lack of understanding of the school funding process by the public. We failed to help the public gain an understanding of the purpose of our funds, and there was a lack of an understanding of the relationship between taxes and services.” Additionally, he said, "There was an inability of the voting public to accept the paradigm shift from paying property taxes to supporting schools.”

6. Clearly communicate the facts to those in the community and nurture support from the local newspaper. In a couple of situations, the opposition was not only well organized, but reportedly intentionally publicized inaccurate data. One superintendent vented, "We were surprised that some perceived reputable folks were guilty of fabrication to gain an advantage.”  Sometimes the repeating of inaccurate data simply happens because it is easier to use hearsay than to check out the facts. In one community the newspaper focused on the negative by constantly interviewing and quoting people who were opposed to the referendum. Superintendents should be actively talking to civic groups and speaking one-on-one with the constituents. 

7. If you report that you will "have to cut," be reasonably specific (maybe list options) and make sure your information is accurate.  The public is too often confused when it has been reported that a certain number of staff would have to be RIF'ed, only to learn that most or all of them were hired back. Sometimes this situation is due to attrition, but the general public is likely not aware of the reasons.  One superintendent stated that no cuts would be needed this year, but would be necessary next year. This superintendent stated, "This may become a credibility issue if this situation is not clearly communicated to the public.”
8. Secure the support of the business community. Don't wait to nurture and seek this support just prior to or during a referendum. Ongoing networking in the community with or without a referendum is very important.  It is crucial for business owners to understand that the business community and the school system have a symbiotic relationship. The businesses in the community will suffer with a school corporation that is not meeting the needs of the children. Partnerships with the community need to be established. One superintendent reported, "We had a local businessman provide a very visible billboard.” Another, however, stated, “A significant number of those from the business community opposed the referendum.” Another said, "We should have been more intentional getting community leader support.” A fourth said, "A local businessman has been an outspoken opponent of funds previously being spent on school improvements.”

9. In rural areas, make sure you meet with those in the agricultural communities. If agencies representing the farmers can't support the project, try to get them to remain neutral. Better yet, get leaders from the farming community involved in some of the committees that study and make recommendations regarding the facilities or instructional budget needs. In one community the votes were "exceedingly" close, but the votes from the rural areas negatively impacted the outcome.

10. If you initiate a referendum, make sure "your heart is in it" and the needs are compelling.  The job description for superintendents is changing as a result of the referendum requirements. Superintendents now must become much more political in the community. However, the additional networking, collaboration, and marketing of the schools can be a positive experience if the superintendent focuses on what the community wants for its schools. One person stated, "Our heart was not in it. We did not generate a lot of effort. We felt, however, that we would be criticized if we did not try a referendum.”  In contrast, in one successful campaign last year, visits were made to the homes of every registered voter in the district at least once. Groups of canvassers made house calls during the evenings Tuesdays through Thursdays and on Saturday mornings for about six weeks. They also organized several hundred volunteers. In another successful effort, phone calls were made to all registered voters. Using a script, callers identified likely "yes" voters.  Follow-up calls were made later to those likely to support the referendum.  Securing a large number of volunteers becomes easier when you have involved a large number on your planning or feasibility committees.

 11. Create a campaign plan and organize a quality PAC. The campaign needs to be a grassroots effort. Those on the PAC should be selected based upon their skills and influence in the community. A cross-section of people passionate about the mission of the campaign should make up the committee.  One superintendent stated, "We had the wrong leadership for the campaign committee. Also, our time frame was too short. We should have started a year earlier.” For clarification, certain features of a campaign, such as the display of yard signs, should not begin until about the last two weeks of the campaign.

12. Make sure your staff understands the recommendations leading up to the referendum. Many staff members, especially teachers, are placed in situations where they are asked for their opinions regarding the proposed referendum. A superintendent stated, "Our teacher union was unwilling to open our negotiated contract prior to the election." Another stated, "Our teaching staff could not and still do not believe how bad it will get.” In one successful general fund referendum, teacher participation was very helpful. Not only did teachers send many post cards and letters to seek support for the referendum, they agreed to no salary increase (except for the increments) for one year.

13. Make plans to deal with the social media and with misinformation. One superintendent said, "We had difficulty combating and correcting cyber information that began to spread on blogs and Facebook.”  This will increasingly become more of a problem. Someone on the PAC should be responsible for watching the blogs and responding with facts. One seasoned administrator, who had a successful referendum last year, recommended that when responding to comments on social media that you not hit “Reply,” but rather create a new message, which avoids duplicating the original message.

Some well-organized referendum strategies were orchestrated in Indiana but still failed to receive a sufficient number of "yes" votes, even though they almost had success.  And, regardless of high quality efforts, some school corporations may experience repeated failed referenda in the future. One school corporation which lost by a very close margin had support from the local newspaper, used precinct information properly, targeted registered voters, advertised on radio and with yard signs, gained support from most of the business community, and created a PAC, yet still did not secure an adequate level of "yes" votes from the rural community.

 Superintendents from school corporations with failed referenda have learned more about what their community wants for its children and for what it may be willing to pay. With this information, a second referendum may have more success. They have also learned more about collaboration, networking, and the campaign process. But, as one superintendent stated, "We have reached a point in our process where any facility improvements will be done with our annual funds, so as to avoid a referendum or petition/remonstrance.”

A community engagement specialist recommends that those who experience a failed general fund referendum conduct a poll (using a professional pollster) to demographically break down the reasons for the "no" votes, unify the board (if needed), meet with the opposition, make the necessary cuts in school programs and personnel and publicize them, and conduct an extensive community engagement phase prior to the next campaign. The specialist clarified that the polling is only necessary if the stakeholders have various opinions about the reasons for the failure.

One seasoned Indiana superintendent with successful referendum experience in another state suggested that communities had problems with referenda this year because the referendum process is still new in Indiana. He felt that many individuals voting on a referendum for the first time likely did not believe the additional funds were needed. He indicated that all the conversations about the cap on taxes were also not helpful. 

Referenda will become much more common in the future.  Once the economy has fully recovered, perhaps a higher percentage of referenda will be passed.   If not, Indiana might eventually be known for "have" and "have not" school corporations and communities.