In over thirty years of partnering with Kansas school districts, we’ve noticed a trend. A successful bond campaign doesn’t happen by chance, but some districts proceed as though they do. Hope is a wonderful thing, but not a successful strategy.
A combination of skill, effort and experience are required to pass a bond election. For years, districts have used various, generally accepted campaign strategies to inform the public, but we’ve discovered a more effective approach to educate your community.
And it requires starting much earlier than you may think.
Waiting until the campaign begins to inform the public hurts districts. School and community leaders rob themselves of valuable time to cultivate engagement.
Here are some ways we encourage districts to engage their community early:
Identify your why
The most successful bond initiatives are a result of a comprehensive, collaborative strategic planning by district leaders and including all stakeholders. Regardless of how district leaders get to the point of deciding to move forward with a bond issue, though, it’s vital to understand the “why” behind the initiative.
A strong, unified understanding of the ideal future state for the students and families of your district will be an important foundation when communicating to the community late in the process.
Recruit your influencers
From Board of Education support to community leaders, engaging voters is a grassroots effort. Start identifying who will help you reach your base well before the campaign launches.
Shore up board support. A 7-0 vote of support by the Board of Education for the bond project doesn’t guarantee a successful outcome, but it sure helps. And even one dissenting board member can negatively impact the process. Identify, discuss and address concerns early so the board is well-informed and focused on solutions in time for your first public discussions about facility needs.
Recruit community-based supporters. There are many reasons why your best influencers will be community members who are not part of or even related to the board or district.
Start recruiting those supportive, respected community members now. Make sure they’re educated about the district’s mission and values, the needs and barriers the district is facing, and the potential solutions a bond will offer.
Recruit supportive volunteers. The most successful groups of community volunteers are led by two co-chairs, who represent two different demographics. (Example: A retired teacher who owns farmland and a young parent active in the business community.)
Committees are wise to invite multiple, respected members of the community to participate. If you wait until it’s time to start a bond campaign to recruit these leaders and members, it’s often too late.
Identifying these influential partners long before your bond campaign begins is vital to its success because there’s so much more that goes into a bond vote than just fliers. Which speaking of—who’s paying for fliers?
Start raising money early
Telling a story can be expensive. And supportive committees with a treasurer can collect donations to the cause. But we’ve found that committees often underestimate the amount of money they’ll need to spend on marketing.
If they expect to print fliers, send mailers, create social media ad campaigns and plant yard signs, they’ll want the finances to be available to pay for these.
How much money does a campaign need to be successful? While committee leaders should keep in mind that the number will change based on the size of the district and that success still depends on many other factors—we’ve seen successful campaigns start with as little as $600. Though we recommend committing to $1,000 as a launching point and better to aim for $3,000. Leftover funds can be used to thank volunteers after the election.
What should you expect in your bond vote? Voter turnout, volunteer needs, timing of the campaign—through our extensive work with districts and experienced school leaders, we’ve compiled a list of trends we’ve noticed in the last year that may deviate from conventional wisdom.
Conventional Wisdom: Expect voter turnout for a special bond election to be between 30-35%.
New Reality: Plan your campaign around the expectation of 50% voter turnout. It’s true some districts still turn out much lower numbers, but several have been as high as 50% in recent years so it’s best to plan around the higher number.
Conventional Wisdom: Open community forums only attract “the negative people” and should be avoided.
New Reality: Listening is vital to any successful initiative. And “the negative people” will use the absence of community forums as “proof” of a lack of district transparency. They could say the district is hiding something or only listening to certain factions of the community. Plan for multiple mechanisms for soliciting broad community feedback like forums, online surveys, and meeting diverse groups of community members where they’re at.
Conventional Wisdom: We can get by with a small handful of dedicated volunteers.
New Reality: Depending on the size of your district, you’ll need tens-to-dozens of highly energized community-based volunteers who are prepared to spend a few hours each week for several weeks executing on a focused plan to inform the public and get out the vote. Define roles and expectations early and be prepared with a detailed plan so they can feel like their contribution of time is well-spent.
OPPONENT’S FINANCIAL STRENGTH
Conventional Wisdom: We can get by with some yard signs and social media posts.
New Reality: Even small districts have experienced the challenges of well-funded opposition groups that flood mailboxes with postcards and even take out ads in newspapers, etc. Any campaign designed to provide factual information about your bond project requires funding and a strategic paid, earned and owned media plan. Video is particularly powerful. Check out the series we produced for Hesston Schools.
TIMING OF THE CAMPAIGN
Conventional Wisdom: Start the information campaign about three weeks before the election.
New Reality: Voters are more aware than ever, and those who oppose the bond project may already be mobilized and communicating broadly, long before election day. Develop a campaign communications plan that starts months before the election.
This way works
One district whose bond communication strategy we helped coordinate was USD 448 Inman. Inman’s relatively large community-led campaign included lots of volunteer hours, tons of social posts, impactful videos, great public relations, and optimism from school officials, despite coming off two failed bond elections in four years. Even using a comprehensive campaign to inform and rally supporters, the bond passed by only six votes after a 47% voter turnout kept the district on the edge of their seats while provisional ballots were counted.
Engaging their community early, recruiting the right advocates, and keeping expectations grounded were critical elements of this campaign’s success. An intentional, cohesive campaign helped earn Inman enough votes to tip the scale in favor of updated facilities for the community’s students.
Partnering with a team who is both knowledgeable about the key factors of winning a bond and capable of executing effective strategies may be the difference-making decision you need to pass the bond.
For more information, please get in contact with Brandon Brungardt at 316.942.8855.