Focus: School Finance

Targeting Voters in a School Bond Election

by SCOTT R. MILDER

The advent of social media technologies and sophisticated voter targeting software has transformed public voting on school finance issues from a guessing game to a science.

In working on more than 70 school district elections over the last 10 years, our firm has experienced the evolution of campaign strategy from impersonal mass communication techniques to today’s highly targeted campaigns.

Scott MilderScott R. Milder

The principal element in election science is voter targeting.

Though we encourage school district leaders and governing board members to communicate about the vote on a bond measure, district budget or tax levy with every resident in their boundaries, we also promote a deeper level of communication with those registered voters who are the most likely to vote. With a little help from voter-targeting software, we can research voting history within any school district.

Likely Voters
The Belton, Texas, Independent School District, located 40 miles north of Austin, experienced a major victory recently due, in large part, to the district’s willingness to conduct an experiment in the science of modern election planning.

Belton identified all registered-voter households with at least one voter who voted in 50 percent or more of all elections held over the previous five years. Why? Many registered voters never or rarely vote. Identifying those most likely to vote allows a targeted, one-to-one approach with those voters most likely to directly impact the outcome of your election.

Let’s take that concept a step further. If you merge that voter data with student directory information, you have a list of likely registered voter parents by campus. We merge the data with various local lists, including civic club memberships, booster clubs and an employee directory.

This was an incredibly successful strategy for the 8,800-student Belton district. With lists of likely voters by campus, then-superintendent Vivian Baker, a few members of her staff and a couple of school board members began making phone calls.

“When you first suggested we call the registered voters with children in our schools, I thought, ‘Oh, no! I can’t do one more thing.’” Baker said. “But I took a deep breath and started my calling the very next day, and I finished them in a few days — almost 100 calls! The experience was so worthwhile for me. The majority of the people were friendly and seemed appreciative. Not one call was outwardly negative.”

A voter who receives a call directly from the superintendent reminding them to vote and asking whether they have any questions is inspired to vote … and vote yes.

Cornerstone Plans
Winning a vote on a school district budget, bond or tax levy doesn’t begin with the campaign, however. Success begins early and includes a host of supporting elements. These include revisiting your strategic plan; engaging community and staff; involving your school board; conducting a thorough analysis of existing facility conditions and implications of proposed projects; developing an appropriate ballot proposition; developing a clear and concise message; and communicating consistently via a healthy blend of print, electronic and social media.

The earliest, and perhaps most important, of these elements is your strategic plan. Your district’s strategic plan provides context and makes the election more than just an important activity. It becomes a cornerstone in your efforts toward achieving your district’s vision.

Once your strategic plan is in place, the next step is organizing a community advisory committee to review all vital signs and relevant reports. Allow this committee to recommend a course of action to your board of education and honor the committee’s work. This will build community-driven momentum and energy around the vote.
In many cases, the members of this committee create a political action committee to get out the “vote yes” message, so it is important they have a positive experience.

Engagement Tactics
Other key steps of a successful campaign are these:

•  Conduct an objective voter-opinion assessment about the election and about the district overall. Make sure it meas-ures levels of public confidence in district leadership. Conduct this assessment at the beginning of your planning process and again 60 days prior to election day to gauge voter attitudes. Adjust your messages and tactics accordingly.

•  Engage your board, district leadership, staff and community in the planning process and in the election campaign to the extent permissible by state law. Some states have restrictions on school district staff and board members regarding their participation. We recommend the better-safe-than-sorry approach. Stick to the facts. Avoid advocating for passage of the election via persuasive language or speech unless your state clearly allows it.

•  Design an appropriate, community-driven plan that fits the educational needs and financial capacity of your district. Make sure the package is one that will move your district forward within the context of your district’s strategic plan.

•  Create a clear, concise and consistent message. While a newsletter mailer may be appropriate, the most effective strategies focus on one-to-one, targeted communications. Incorporate Facebook, Twitter and blogging. Go to the voters. Make presentations and phone calls. Knock on doors. Your website, e-mail and texting are other communication vehicles to incorporate.

•  Keep your community informed between elections. Continue communicating as if you have another election on the horizon. Ultimately, this science project is about much more than winning your election. It can be the first step in a journey to strengthening public confidence and trust in your school district and its leadership.

Scott Milder is principal of Cambridge Strategics in Dallas, Texas, and CEO of Friends of Texas Public Schools. E-mail: smilder@cambridgestrategics.com