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Getting to Yes – Passing a Referendum Vote

Legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry said, “Setting a goal is not the main thing. It is deciding how you will go about achieving it and staying with that plan.” That is sound advice for any District planning to go out to the community with a referendum vote. The scenario begins with the idea of facilities improvements and ends with the budget for this well-intentioned capital project going to a referendum vote to the community. What happens in the middle determines if and how the community will vote on the referendum.


When a District prepares for capital improvement or growth project, the challenge is always getting the community to vote to support the budget referendum. Passing a referendum vote for a Board of Education can seem like a daunting task even for an experienced Board. In fact, with a well thought out, strategically executed plan, your District has the ability to guide every phase of the project to a successful outcome to the benefit of the students and community. With planning, creativity , communication and flexibility as key elements, we have partnered with many Districts to earn community support to get bonding for essential facilities dollars. While every District is unique, some best practices universally apply.

The District must begin with a methodical planning process. This kicks off well in advance of the actual referendum plan development, by gathering priorities from faculty, staff, including administrators, maintenance, and non-teaching, parents, students and community members. All stakeholders should have an opportunity to comment while understanding that hopes and dreams may not equal needs. Working with your architect, this input translates into prioritized facilities needs, with emphasis on instructional needs, especially as those needs relate to technology. Instructional technology needs should concentrate on cutting edge methodologies as yesterday’s concepts will be outdated by the time the renovation/construction is completed.


Times and venues of community meetings should be established to best attract demographic representation in the school community. Diverse times and settings (community center, senior center, schools) will make the meetings, and by extension participation, accessible. Focus should include young parents with future students of the District, staff living in the community, senior citizens and the business community. Community groups/segments tend to vote based on perceived benefit to themselves. Ultimately the project visions and makeup need to incorporate the priorities and culture of the school community.


The qualitative information gathered will be coupled with available quantitative data, like that included in Annual Visual Inspections and Building Condition Surveys, to define the project scope. The program defined by the scope is ideally a blend of renovation needs with improvements that appeal to the community. Some ideas may include community access to various facilities during off hours: a fitness center with students in mind but open to the community through a community education program, access to renovated cafeteria for evening meetings, a multimedia instructional space that the community is allowed to use during non-instructional hours. This creative use of the programmed space appeals to the stakeholders by creating a perceived benefit. As the scope definition takes on clarity, it is time to seek input again from staff, students, parents and other community stakeholders. These will ultimately be the people who give the yea or nay vote so bring them into the fold.


There is an old adage about public speaking that says, “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em. Tell ’em. Then tell ’em what you told ’em.” The same concept applies to messaging the referendum to the public. Clear concise brochures are the first step. In developing any paper promotion, the message will be refined to manageable pieces of necessary information: what is in the program, how much will it cost, who will pay for it, what does it mean to various stakeholders. This process also prepared the representatives to carry the message to the public. This information, in its refined, concise form will be the backbone for all communications in person, on paper, and in the media.

The best presenters and most notable individuals should be represented at these meetings. The formal presentation needs to be brief, pointed and easy to understand. Visual tools may include Powerpoint and/or boards showing site plans, color plans. exterior elevations and, if applicable, an aerial view. The content will succinctly address the fiscal impact, inclusive of construction costs, funding streams, and potential property value impact.

The goal for this second phase of stakeholder contact is to present the program and get buy-in. It is helpful to meet separately with the school staff groups from teachers, to clerical to maintenance. This attention allows each group validation and commentary without contending with competing demands. The community at-large will also have opportunity to comment and pose questions. These meetings should be scheduled throughout the community at all times of day, with the objective of opportunity for access from all stakeholders.


Some Districts have gone to the extent to set up a web site devoted to the referendum vote. In the age of social media, all outlets should be employed, sending a consistent, informative and persuasive message with multiple delivery methods, including Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.

The essential component of community involvement cannot be stated strongly enough. Objectives and impacts must be shared with the community in meetings, public service announcements, brochures, social media and Q&A sessions. Communication builds trust. Trust garners support. This procedural involvement will motivate segments to get the yes vote out.


In closing, though the referendum process may be new to your Superintendent or School Board, help is available. We are proud to have closely partnered with many Districts on successful capital projects that started with the challenge of passing a referendum and resulted in students and the community benefiting with needed, modern, cost effective, safe facilities.