Words on Wheels for Success in a Tax Election
Careful messaging and targeted advocacy enable a district to bounce back when new school revenues were needed
BY DON E. LIFTO AND MIKE REDMOND/School Administrator, December 2022

Mike Redmond (center), superintendent in Shakopee, Minn., delivered a compelling message to hundreds of residents to win a school tax increase in 2021 after a failed attempt just one year prior. PHOTO COURTESY OF DON LIFTO
In November 2020, a suburban school district near the Twin Cities in Minnesota sought voter approval for a $9 million increase in annual revenue, phased in over multiple years, to better fund teaching and learning. Because of the offsetting retirement of facility bonds, the net increase in taxes on an average-priced home was a modest $198 per year.

When Election Day arrived, however, 54 percent of the 27,000 voters said no, resulting in $5.4 million in budget cuts across the district, including an anguishing loss of 48 teachers.

The following year, a Minnesota school district presented its local voters with two ballot questions. Together, the measures proposed an $11 million annual funding increase that would result in a hefty tax increase of $598 on an average household. When the ballots were counted, about 66 percent approved both of the questions.

Change of Outcomes

Although sparse in both context and detail, these two scenarios share a compelling reality. While the two tax elections led to vastly divergent outcomes, both were tied to one suburban school district, Shakopee Public Schools. The district of about 8,000 students, located 20 miles southwest of Minneapolis, did in fact lose a tax election in 2020 and then win a year later with a near landslide margin, despite a tax impact three times higher than the previous year.

Through post-election analyses of these two voting outcomes, two key variables emerged as bedrocks to Shakopee’s remarkable recovery from its bruising 2020 loss: clarity and consistency of messaging and 1:1 targeted engagement.

In his book Life, the Truth, and Being Free, organizational coach Steve Maraboli writes, “The best way to succeed is to have a specific Intent, a clear Vision, a plan of Action, and the ability to maintain Clarity. Those are the Four Pillars of Success.” The absence of clarity “could put the brakes on any journey to success.”

This principle is reinforced with a humorous twist in a recent Bizarro cartoon. Imagine two men sitting across the table from one an-other at their local coffee shop. While they have normal bodies from the shoulders down, both have road signs for heads. Supplanting one man’s head is a rectangular warning sign with SLOW written in all caps. His friend’s head is depicted as a stoplight sign featuring alternating green, yellow and red lights. Bizarro’s SLOW-headed character chastises his stoplight-headed friend by critiquing, “You should focus on a consistent message.”

Strategic Engagement

Although school leaders might very well turn to some form of prayer in the midst of high-stakes school tax elections, scripture would not necessarily come to mind as a source of wisdom when planning strategic communications and engagement. That being said, a translation from Proverbs goes something like this: “A word fitly spoken is like gold apples in silver settings.”

Unfortunately, spoken words also can be rotten apples in rusty settings as evidenced by two prereferendum messages designed by school leaders for often-wary taxpayers:

“We need to raise taxes to … expand student access to educational continuity through the system and enhance learning opportunities through concentration of age groups and the associated benefits of teaming methodologies.”

And if that doesn’t secure your “yes” vote for a tax increase, how about this gem:

“If the referendum is approved … I can assure you that the commitment to excellence will, by its very nature, promote continued transitions into the immediate future.”

It was not difficult to find these and similarly woeful examples of jargon-filled messages that fall short of the “fitly” standard. (Neither of these was used by Shakopee in its tax campaigns.) Failing this fundamental need for clear, concise, consistent and compelling communication is a recipe for failure on Election Day.

Conversely, messaging that achieves these 4C’s is what one writer characterized as “words on wheels,” capable of transporting understanding broadly and deeply within your community.

Elections in Context

When Redmond took the superintendent reins in November 2018, he became Shakopee’s sixth superintendent in only 18 months. Leadership of the finance department also had been a death-defying roller coaster ride with six directors employed between May 2017 and May 2020. Leadership turnover followed as fallout from significant internal turbulence over operating budgets, teaching and learning, and eroding confidence of parents and the broader community.

A community survey in 2019 revealed the albatross hanging over the district’s collective heads: 39 percent of respondents assigned a grade of D or F for management of finances. Although the survey also documented improving public perceptions of the district, it was a steep hill, and the recovery proved to be a long road. Even the most “fitly words on wheels” had to navigate these historical potholes in addition to unrelenting and deafening noise from the 2020 presidential election and the global pandemic.

When the votes were counted in 2020, 10,776 residents supported the district’s request for $9 million in additional funding. While an all-time high for affirmative votes in Shakopee, it fell well short of a winning margin. As Shakopee licked its collective wounds ($7.5 million in budget cuts in the prior two years) with more on the horizon, district leadership prepared for another try in 2021.

Community feedback reinforced that it was incumbent for leadership to acknowledge past mistakes and improve performance and transparency, while building on positive momentum as documented in its community survey. One aspect of owning the past and building for the future took the form of recruiting new leaders and fresh faces as part of a “Vote Yes” advocacy group to deliver a clear and compelling message.

Shakopee’s message was developed consistent with Maraboli’s framework for success: messages grounded in specific intent, a clear vision, a plan of action and consistent clarity. Their message was stark, compelling and clear, captured in an unforgiving fork in the road. Turn left and have classrooms absorb another round of painful budget cuts totaling $5 million initially and $3-4 million every two to three years thereafter. Turn right and gain an additional $11 million in annual funding, close the gap between Shakopee and its suburban neighbors and achieve budget stability.

To pursue this reality, Shakopee elected to go with two ballot questions in 2021: question 1 seeking $866 per student and question 2 an additional $400 per student. Question 1 needed to pass for question 2 to pass.

Plan Execution

With the community in the driver’s seat, achieving and maintaining a clear message was paramount. It’s one thing to have the right words, but quite another to have the wheels to deliver them and a strategy that identifies which voters to target. Like most school districts, Shakopee used a broad array of communication outreach strategies, including websites, e-mails, social media, press releases, videos, targeted mailings, newspaper endorsements and community forums.

The “Vote Yes” group designed an engagement strategy that emphasized use of demographic and predictive databases and 1-to-1 engagement. L2 data provided a wealth of demographic information about voters, including historical voting frequency. Adding the Voter Activation Network predictive databases further dissected and analyzed dozens of lifestyle and consumer characteristics to identify voters more likely to support a tax election.

Shakopee’s dual strategy emphasized both clarity of message and engaging targeted voters in 1-to-1 conversations.

The campaign’s execution was premised on a turnout of 8,000 voters on Election Day with a campaign target to identify and deliver 5,001 votes of support. The targeting also emphasized promoting early voting by parents and younger voters with less-than-stellar past voting frequency. This effort included two Saturday “walk-in” early voting opportunities that ultimately resulted in 2,700 early votes.

The count on Election Day confirmed the soundness of this strategy: More than 80 percent of early voters marked “yes” on their ballots. The campaign committee was unrelenting in delivering its message one voter at a time through its connector/connectee pyramid outreach. On Election Day, 7,634 registered voters cast ballots, very close to the 8,000 estimated by the campaign, with 5,060 voting “yes” on question 1 and 4,774 on question 2.

Research to Practice

Comparing and contrasting Shakopee’s experience in 2020 versus 2021 is both complex and compelling. While paramount in importance and inextricably linked to success, simply writing a good message — one that meets the 4 C’s and fitly standards — is not always enough when the ballots are counted. Every school tax election is conducted in the context of local, state, national and international circumstances. How the community perceives the overall quality and impact of its public schools also matters.

In any context, school leaders must consider the proverbial reminder referenced earlier, which emphasizes that even the best words need wheels to deliver them. Shakopee’s impactful fork in the road message — delivered through hundreds of 1:1 authentic engagements — was a bedrock to its game-changing strategy. It allowed the school district to recover from a loss the year before when it failed to gain $9 million in additional funding with a $198 proposed tax increase to score a resounding win in 2021 achieving $11 million more in annual funding despite a tax bite of $598.

Overcoming a devastating loss and recovering one year later with a near two-thirds vote of approval was a remarkable accomplishment. The leadership that made this possible will positively impact students, teachers, families and the community for years to come.

DON LIFTO, a former superintendent, is a consultant with School Election Strategies and the Morris Leatherman Company in St. Paul, Minn. Twitter: @LiftoDon. MIKE REDMOND is superintendent of the Shakopee Public Schools in Shakopee, Minn.