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Board Leadership in a School Referendum

Michele Thomas

Board of Trustees, Lebanon Community School Corporation

A Capital Projects referendum is a key opportunity for school board members to lead in their community.  The school corporation is severely restricted in how it can promote these projects after the 1028 hearing.  The stipulation that no taxpayer money be spent promoting the question means school resources--like computers, web sites, or staff time--may not be used to encourage people to vote yes.  (The schools may and should continue to provide “factual information” to voters.)  “Vote Yes” signs and banners may not be placed on school property, and the campaign can’t have organized events or even hand out materials on school grounds.

By statute, however, board members are permitted to take a position on the issue, both as private citizens and in their role as board members.  Hopefully the board voted unanimously in support of the project in the 1028 hearing, and their support is part of the public record.  In this situation, board members can step into the gap, working closely with the pro-referendum PAC (an essential component of a referendum campaign) and taking a leadership role in the campaign.  As board members make public appearances, write letters to the editor, distribute campaign materials, make phone calls or knock on doors, and simply talk up the referendum at every opportunity, the community will learn that their elected school leaders understand the issues and support the school initiative.  Unless the board is actively engaged in supporting the referendum, the community gets the message that the referendum is not important, or that it does not have full board support.

Former board members are an important group to contact.  They understand the issues, and people in the community still look to them as authorities.  Phone calls to all former board members who are still in the district, informing them about the issue and hopefully engaging their vote and support, is a good strategic move.  Any conversation, even with an entrenched “no” voter, is worthwhile.  You may not convert a “no” voter, but if you have a civil, factual conversation you may prevent that voter from persuading five more to vote “no” as well.

Every referendum campaign is an uphill battle, in part because of the nature of the ballot question.  By statute, the Department of Local Government Finance (DLGF) writes or approves referendum questions.  This department has everything to do with state taxes (and I’m sure they do a wonderful job) and nothing to do with education.  In Lebanon, all of the referendum debt will be offset by paying down other debt, resulting in a steady debt service tax rate over the life of the bonds.  Nonetheless, the DLGF wrote our Nov. 2010 ballot question asking voters to approve a $.66 cent increase to their property tax rate (reflecting the maximum tax impact).  We had no appeal or recourse for this—we just had to work that much harder to educate voters that the question was misleading, and that while they would be paying the same tax rate for a longer time, they would not see an increase to their tax rate as a result of the referendum.

This is a structural problem that needs addressing, but for now it puts schools at a terrible disadvantage.  Most voters, when faced with a question asking them to increase their taxes (and according to the DLGF every referendum does this), will default to a “NO” vote.

In Lebanon, with a tax rate-neutral proposal for just $40 million in renovations (not new construction), an active, well-organized, and sufficiently-funded PAC and no opposition PAC (although there was some vocal opposition), the referendum passed by just 35 votes out of 5500 cast.  While all board members weren’t equally involved in the campaign, every board member played an important supporting role to the PAC’s work (donating to the campaign, displaying a banner on a grain silo, writing a letter to the editor, appearing on the radio, working the polls), and every contact between the board and the voting public was crucial.  A referendum campaign is a time for board members to exercise their public trust and bully pulpit, and to take the needs of the schools to the public by actively campaigning in favor of the referendum.