Reconnecting with the Community after a Defeated Referendum

By Brian Hanes, district administrator, School District of Ashwaubenon (formerly Superintendent at Oostburg)

Recently 73 school districts in Wisconsin faced referendums in the April election (35 passed and 37 failed). It seems obvious there is a growing need and concern to fun expenses that directly or indirectly relate to meeting student needs. State-imposed revenue caps have had a negative effect on school districts’ ability to address needs such as ongoing maintenance, staffing, and classroom space.

In the School District of Oostburg the revenue cap substantially reduced the district’s ability to address its maintenance needs or to add needed classroom space. Prior to revenue caps, the district was able to allow five percent to six percent of its total budget to address building and grounds upkeep and equipment replacement. Today, less than two percent is allocated. Like many school districts, Oostburg carefully planned to conduct a referendum to address needs outlined above. The district took the following actions:

  • Put together a committee
  • Conducted a facility needs study
  • Outlined a referendum with the input of a cross section of the community, staff, and board members
  • Organized information sessions
  • Televised a video tape on the local cable channel
  • Made copies of PowerPoint presentations, fact sheets, and frequently asked questions available via our dstrict web site
  • Mobilized an organized “calling committee” prior to the vote.

Despite all the above, our referendum failed, and we were faced with the tough question of what to do next.

Ask the Community

Following the failed referendum, the school board decided to conduct a survey to identify specifically what the voters would be willing to support. The survey was mailed to district residents and also made available on our web site. It included nine questions specific to our needs and ended with an open-ended “additional comments” area.

Based on the community feedback from the survey, we trimmed down our original referendum and eventually passed a $9.8 million referendum for building additions and renovations for our high school and elementary school.

What did we learn from this two-year process?

There is no “magic bullet” that will get a referendum passed. In preparation for the referendum that eventually passed, I asked for additional advice from Kit Dailey, strategic communications advisor with First Trust Portfolios LP. Some of her key suggestions proved to be very helpful:

  • Strive for 100 percent board unity and consensus on what you decide to do.
  • Put together a defined statement of WHY you decided to bring this issue back to voters.
  • Define three key messages (look at your current ones…anything muddy?)
  • Develop strategies that involve one-on-one contacts (we formed a new committee that was led by a parent and they worked more closely with the media, neighbors, etc.).
  • Provide information appropriately to support groups that can focus on advocacy, not just information.

As simple as it sounds, we learned that what will pass is what people are willing to support. Take the time to reconnect with the community, carefully listen, and communicate district needs on an on-going basis

Today, we are grateful for the support to move programs forward in Oostburg and to continue the excellence that we earned in the past.

About the author

The Wisconsin School Public Relations Association (WSPRA) is a professional association representing schools, school districts, educational associations, consulting agencies and organizations. WSPRA is a state affiliate of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA). 4797 HAYES ROAD | SUITE 103 | MADISON, WI 53704 | PHONE: 608-241-0300 | WSPRA@AWSA.ORG