Tweaking Your Plan and Handling opposition: using the referendum to make deposits in the bank of “goodwill”

Note: this is the seventh in a 10-part series on topics related to communication and successful school operating or bond referendum efforts that originally appeared on the Minnesota Association of School Administrators website. These posts are not meant to be an all-inclusive guide for school district leadership, but rather offer suggestions and guidance on school district referendum communication-related issues. All opinions expressed are my own.)

The Tweak’s the Thing

With Election Day less than three weeks away, it’s time to check in on your communications plan. Here are a few questions to help you determine what plan components may need to be changed or reworked:

Are your messages clear?

Do community members seem to understand what you are asking for – and why you are asking for it? Do they understand the need and rationale behind the ballot question? How you plan to allocate the revenue? If not, go back and review your messages. Are they clear? Do they answer the “who, what, where and why questions”? If not, refine your key messages and talking points and use those for the final few weeks.

Are your messages consistent?

Although you may need different secondary messages for different audiences (think seniors versus parents of preschoolers), your overarching messages should always be consistent and should be included in all your referendum materials.

It’s also very easy to get sidetracked and knocked “off message” by opponents. A tactic often used by opposition is to try and get the conversation moved away from schools and students to something that is much more controversial – like tax rates or wasteful government spending. While it is all right to acknowledge these issues, don’t be drawn into a discussion that will take you away from your core message.

Are your messages reaching your community?

One of the most frustrating things in running a referendum campaign is thinking your are getting your message out to all corners of your district – and then finding out you are not. (Note: when I was a tri-chair of the Robbinsdale Area Schools Vote Yes committee, I remember speaking with a parent in the district a few days before the election who was unaware of our referendum effort, even through we had saturated the district with mailings, rallies, neighborhood coffees, yard signs and more. When I asked where she got her news, she said she “really didn’t pay attention to news.”)

The best way to determine reach is to ask. Go to a local community center, coffee shop or community event and ask people what they know about the referendum. Are community members aware of the upcoming vote? Is their information accurate?

Dealing with Opposition

Here’s the thing: you’re never going to have 100 % support for your levy effort. Somewhere in your community, there are people who will always oppose additional funding. They may feel that too much money is already being poured into public education or that education should be privatized. Even some strong supporters of public education may vote no to increased taxes.

Whether the “Vote No” groups’ efforts are well organized and well funded or consist of a single but vocal disgruntled community member, how you deal with them can actually help you build trust and respect, even among those who disagree with you. A few guidelines to consider:

  • Monitor their efforts. Rather than pretend that they don’t exist, monitor you’re your opposition is saying. Any kernels of truth in their message should be noted and – if appropriate – addressed in a FAQ sheet, blog post or other communication. This is especially important if the message resonates with voters and is picking up steam.
  • Don’t get caught up in the details. Rather than argue or refute a seemingly small issue detail-by-detail, stick with your main message and offer community members a place (web page, article, report, etc.) where they can find all the information they need.
  • Take the high road. Sometimes opponents just want to engage district leaders in a verbal brawl. They’ll use every trick in the book to get you to lose your temper or publically dismiss them as nuts. Don’t take the bait. As difficult as it may be, taking the high road will always pay off in the end. (And, if a brawler if truly needed, find a supportive community member willing to take on that role.)
  • Admit when you’re stumped. As hard as it may be to acknowledge, there are some things that you may not know about the district— and that’s ok (you are only human, after all). Rather than give an evasive or inaccurate answer, it is perfectly acceptable to say you don’t know, but that you’ll find out and get back to whomever you’re speaking with. Of course, you then need to do just that.
  • If all else fails, agree to disagree, smile and move on.


Next week: Get Out the Vote Efforts.

About robin

Robin Smothers, APR, is the driving force behind the public relations firm, RMSPR. Robin’s practice focuses on community initiatives, particularly education. Accredited by the Public Relations Society of America, Robin draws from more than 20 years of experience to develop award-winning public relations, communications and community engagement programs. Prior to founding RMSPR in 1999, Robin worked in agency, non-profit and corporate settings. Robin holds a M.P.A. in Community Engagement, a Certificate in Public Participation from the International Association of Public Participation, and a Certificate in Business Communication from the University of St. Thomas. She is past president of the Minnesota School Public Relations Association and past president of the Association for Women in Communication, Twin Cities chapter. Robin is a frequent author, speaker and presenter on topics such as PR2.0, community engagement and public relations. Contact Robin at

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