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.

Preparing Referendum Materials

Note: this is the third 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.)

 

 

Unless you’ve perfected the art of cloning, you can’t possibly be in as many places as you need to be to address all of your community’s referendum-related questions. Thank goodness that well prepared referendum support materials can help!

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for materials. You can prepare as many – or as few – materials as fits your community’s need (remembering, of course, to adhere to state and local election laws). However, as you create your communications plan and determine what materials you will prepare, keep in mind the following suggestions:

  • Set a goal of weekly updates. Remember: it is almost impossible to over-communicate during a referendum.
  • Create both broad and audience specific materials, making sure all include relevant broad and/or targeted messages. Note: It is vital that these messages be based on research / community input and address the interests and concerns of each stakeholder group. Groups may include district staff (current and retired), parents of current students, alumni / alumni parents, pre-school parents, senior citizens, business owners, and community groups, just to name a few.
  • Tie your messages and materials to student achievement and impact on the classroom. Telling voters that the district will have to cut $4 million means more when put in terms of the number of teachers or staff positions it represents.
  • Create materials that answer every conceivable question a community member might have regarding the referendum. Proactively answer the “Five Ws and One H of Journalism” (who, what, why, when, where and how).
  • Use charts and graphs to visualize financial information and numbers. Use stories and quotes to humanize and localize your efforts. Annotate and source all your facts.
  • For electronic communications, offer a synopsis with a link back to your website for deeper explanation.
  • Post all materials on your website for download. Save as PDF files rather than Word documents (which are easier to alter).
  • Be consistent in the look and feel of your materials.
  • Consider a sentence-by-sentence breakdown and explanation of the actual ballot language.
  • While you may not be able to advocate for the referendum’s passage, you can encourage community members to get out and vote.
  • Finally, don’t expect community members to come to you for information. It’s up to you to get the information out to your community.

Next week: The importance of internal communication

 

Supporting documents for MSBA “Communications on a Shoestring”

Thanks for coming to today’s Communication on a Shoestring workshop. Below are the files mentioned in the presentation.

Comm Shoestring – Wksht Audiences

Comm Shoestring – Wksht Content Analysis

Comm Shoestring – Wksht Key Messages