8 Tips for Planning and Executing Successful School Tax Elections

By Don E. Lifto, Ph.D., and J. Bradford Senden, Ph.D.

Book_School Finance ElectionsLifto and Senden are the authors of School Finance Elections: A Comprehensive Planning Model for Successful School Bond Referenda.. AASA members save 25% on the book using promotion code 6S10AASA until June 30, 2010.

Planning and executing successful school tax elections is one of the most multifaceted, daunting and high-stakes leadership challenges faced by school administrators. Not only are school leaders confronted with the increasingly vilified “T” word (taxes), but there are also myriad of complex moving parts all within the byzantine reality of local and state politics.

While fully understanding the danger of oversimplifying the task, after working on hundreds of school tax elections over the last 25 years, we offer the following tips for planning and executing your next operating or facility referendum.

  1. Start planning early. While one could argue that school leaders should always be working on their next tax election, we recommend that planning begin in earnest no less than 12 and preferably 18 months before Election Day. And remember a plan is not a plan unless it is comprehensive and put to writing.
  2. Prepare an annotated voter file. The registered voter file, electronically annotated with other key databases, (e.g., parents of school-aged children, past supporters, pre-school families) is your most important campaign resource and a prerequisite for effective communications, canvassing and GOTV activities.
  3. Complete a post-election analysis. Understanding the demographics of past voting behavior of parents and other registered voters is a vital step in planning your next school tax election. The PEA includes analyses of past voting patterns by such demographic variables as parent status, gender, age, geography and voting frequency over time.
  4. Complete a scientific, random – sample survey. The methodology we recommend draws a random sample from the annotated database of registered voters. The randomization is controlled to ensure that the composition of the sample mirrors the demographic characteristics of the school district as a whole (i.e., if parents represent 25 percent of all registered voters, no more than 25 percent of the random calls go to parents). In addition to collecting qualitative feedback about the district, the survey helps the school board align the ballot proposal with the community’s priorities and willingness to pay.
  5. Develop or update a community engagement plan using the results of the scientific, random sample survey. Community engagement planning is a good example of why we started our list of eight tips with the admonition to start early. If the survey findings indicate that only 40 percent of registered voters support building a new elementary school, the district needs time to plan and engage in order to turn what often is a big ship in a more positive direction before Election Day.
  6. Start early cultivating key community members for leadership roles in campaign. If you are old enough to remember the movie The Dirty Dozen or the reference to The Dream Team from the 1992 Olympics, you will appreciate this tip. Your chances of winning are greatly enhanced if your campaign is launched from a foundation of strength in terms community – based leadership and adequate human resources for the challenging task at hand.
  7. Roles and responsibilities. Take the time to develop and clearly communicate appropriate roles for the school board, administrative staff, faculty and staff and community leadership. Inherent to clarity on roles and responsibilities is delineation on how the campaign will be managed and who will make key decisions as the process unfolds.
  8. Excel at the “Big Three” –communications, canvassing and GOTV. The professional literature is replete with research and best practices relevant to both partisan and issue – based referenda. These studies emphasize the vital nature and relationship to success of communications, canvassing and GOTV.

The negative consequences of unsuccessful operating and facility referenda impact students, staff and the community as a whole. Failed elections can also take a significant toll on the leadership roles of school administrators. While religiously implementing our eight tips will not guarantee a winning referendum, being a student of research and successful practices will significantly improve your odds of success on Election Day. “Good intentions, hard work, and resources are important, but they are wasted if they are not being funneled toward strategies that actually produce votes.” (Yale Civic Engagement Website)

Learn More
For more on this topic, read School Finance Elections: A Comprehensive Planning Model for Successful School Bond Referenda, co-published by AASA and Rowman & Littlefield Education in Fall 2009. Advance orders now accepted -- to receive your 20% AASA member discount, enter promotion code AASA20 at checkout. (Limited-Time Offer: AASA members save 25% on the book using promotion code 6S10AASA until June 30, 2010.)

About the Authors

Don E. Lifto, Ph.D., is senior vice president and director with Springsted Incorporated, a St. Paul – based independent financial advisory and consulting firm. He previously served as a public school superintendent, consults with school districts on election planning and is a frequent presenter and contributing writer for AASA, NSBA and ASBO. He can be reached at dlifto@springsted.com.

J. Bradford Senden, Ph.D., is managing partner for the Center for Community Opinion based in San Ramon California. He designs, administers and interprets scientific, random – sample polls for school districts, cities, and colleges and has served as a consultant for hundreds of school tax elections in California and across the country. He can be reached at brad@communityopinion.com.