Strategies Behind a Successful Bond Referendum
By RENÉE T. WILLIS/School Administrator, November 2018

SCHOOL DISTRICTS with aging facilities often rely on bond referenda funds to make structural and infrastructural changes. This is especially true in districts such as Richmond Heights, Ohio, primarily a residential community with little commercial property tax. Bonds are our sole source of capital to cover much-needed facility improvements.

Last November, we launched a grassroots campaign that culminated in voters approving a $27 million levy. We conducted surveys and audits to identify our baseline, but the six strategies outlined below are what made the difference on our first attempt after several prior administrations did not gain voter approval. The Capstone Project Think Tank of the AASA Urban Superintendents Academy (of which I was a member) helped me to craft this strategy.

» Broaden the vision.
Include multipurpose facilities in your plans that will serve the interests of students, parents, elderly residents and others without children. We went door-to-door, asking locals to tell us their vision and what amenities they preferred.

Their ideas ultimately led to a modern, multipurpose facility with event and classroom space, a merger of the school and county library to expand the current selection of holdings, and a partnership with the YMCA to bring its Silver Sneakers program to the heart of the community. We had a prototype for a 21st-century community learning center to sell to the electorate.

» Galvanize a circle of believers.
Solicit the support of local influencers — business owners, religious leaders, your alumni network (specifically recent graduates active on social media) and residents with strong community ties. Ask them to promote the vision to everyone in their network.

Also, enlist the support of local elected representatives as voters will follow their lead.

» Hold one-on-one meetings.
We met with homeowners in living rooms, with council members in cafés, with community leaders at fast-food restaurants. We attended local church services to share the vision, and of course, we informed and engaged parents.

When meeting with residents, make sure they understand exactly what they are voting for — and against. While voting in favor of a levy will increase their taxes, not voting for it can have more costly, long-term consequences, such as decreasing property values, or merging with another school district and assuming that city’s tax rate.

» Get students involved.
Apprise students of your goals and give them specific ways to participate. Empower them to motivate adults to do their part to improve the quality of their education by inviting them into the conversation.

We used student volunteers to blitz residential streets and apartment complexes with a literature drop on Saturday mornings. We organized an adult car pool to transport student groups to various locations, then met up for lunch. Our kids loved having an active role and were delighted their volunteerism contributed to the campaign’s success.

» Ramp up your marketing.
Broadcast a narrative of community revitalization through your communication channels regularly. Post renderings of the proposed facilities on your digital platforms. Create a hashtag and encourage followers to share your posts. Keep voter registration deadlines and voting reminders in regular rotation. Give special attention to transient residents in apartments who may still be registered to vote at a prior address. We became registrars for our County Board of Elections.

In direct mail newsletters, include all the elected officials who have endorsed your cause.

Elderly residents are a key demographic for early voting. Include them in the primary stages of direct mailings.

Visit neighborhood nursing homes and encourage residents to (1) change their address from their previous residence to the nursing home and (2) request absentee ballots be sent to the home.

Purchase radio ads to play during drive time a few days before the election.

» Chase your yes votes.
Spend your energy persuading two groups of people: those who are on the fence and those with higher property valuations. Use your time firming up support among those who are willing to listen to why they should back the project.

Be aware of opposing arguments so you can address legitimate concerns, but engage and respond to resistance only when necessary.

Running a successful bond referendum campaign is a formidable undertaking and regardless of your blueprint, none guarantees success. However, with the right combination of grassroots and top-level organizational strategies, you can improve the chances of getting your levy passed.

We will break ground on our new facility next spring.

RENÉE WILLIS is superintendent of the Richmond Heights Local Schools in Richmond Heights, Ohio.