Focus

Rallying Volunteers to Boost a Bond Referendum

Community Relations by GERALD STOTTS


Just as an intense 19-day teacher strike came to a close for our district in Wellston, Ohio, our campaign for renovating an existing school and for building two new schools kicked off. In the wake of the strike, the chances of winning the $32.4 million bond issue were questionable.

Yet our campaign became a landslide victory just seven months after the strike. Every precinct passed the issue, with an overall passage of 67 percent. Thanks to several key strategies that improved organization and community involvement, our campaign overcame seemingly impossible odds.

Rather than use the customary, top-down pyramid structure for campaign organization, we tried a two-pronged model. A central committee linked the two prongs and coordinated the entire organization but did not control it. The central body consisted of a chairperson and the chairs of the regional committees and support committees, the two prongs.

Regional chairs directed volunteers who were assigned to precincts in the school district. This allowed us to devote the attention needed to target areas. The regional chairs assigned committee members to oversee phone calls, events and other tasks.

The support chairs headed committees responsible for fund raising, publicity, data collection for tracking campaign support, finances and legal advice. These groups supported the regional committees in their work. For instance, data received from phone committees was used to identify supporters and opponents and to target time and money. The data also was used for sign placement.

Volunteers were able to work within their own precinct, which meant they were likely to know the specific concerns of their neighbors, the most effective means of promoting the campaign and who the most influential residents were. Each regional committee had the latitude to determine what it believed were the most relevant issues to promote.

Once the campaign chairs were chosen, we invited the entire community to join by attending a meeting to explain the bond issue and describe the campaign organization. About 60 individuals turned out.

We used this gathering to divide volunteers into regional groups. Each region picked a chairperson and vice chair. The groups discussed how to meet potential challenges in their particular area. Maps were helpful to this process.

Once the campaign began, the regional and support committees referred back and forth to each other. By dividing the campaign efforts into regional committees, winning the campaign in that area became more personal.

Community Connection
The community approach is the other essential element of a winning campaign. If the community is divided into precincts, the individual committees must target the needs of particular areas. For instance, voters in a precinct where a school will be built should be told about its benefits, as well as how traffic will be controlled. An area replacing an existing school should know why and what the building will be used for.

Community members can be informed in several ways.

 

  • Stage town meetings. Town meetings gave our committees an opportunity to target influential people in the district who carry their support to others in the area.

     

    The town meetings also gave us a chance to address sensitive issues. Our district, serving 1,870 students, faced a complete replacement of existing facilities that left only one building intact. The buildings are a rich part of the town’s heritage and the community needed to understand the decisions to replace them with modern facilities.

     

  • Publicize widely. A school district needs to promote its bond referendum through various forms of public communication. Written materials ought to include how much the levy would cost an average homeowner each year. This literature can help to clear up confusing or misleading information circulating in the community.

     

     

  • Use an architect to sell the campaign. We hired an architectural firm experienced in providing campaign assistance. Rather than using a middleman, TRIAD Architects in Columbus, Ohio, took an active role in our campaign, from explaining the district plan at community forums and answering questions to assisting with preparation of campaign literature.

     

     

  • Keep the community involved. Once the bond issue had passed, we continued to find ways to involve members of our community through the design process. Again, we relied on our architectural firm to take the lead. Community members were able to raise concerns about such things as the planned spaces for student performances and athletic events and we worked these ideas into designs.

     

    The primary reason for community acceptance of the tax increase was because the local share of the bond was only 11 percent. Most community members felt the limited local portion was a bargain when they saw the large amount the state would contribute as a result of passing the issue.

    Another key factor was honesty. When community members asked if maintenance costs would decrease due to newer facilities, the committee replied with honesty that costs would not decrease and gave specific reasons why. Community members appreciated the candor.

    Gerald Stotts is superintendent of the Wellston City Schools, 416 N. Pennsylvania Ave., Wellston, OH 45692

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