Focus

A Referendum Campaign Mounted on a District Website

by GEOFFREY W. ZOELLER JR.

When I started as superintendent of the Westwood Regional School District in New Jersey, I was confronted with unsafe and aging facilities. One of our buildings was almost 80 years old, and four previous attempts at passing a bond to make necessary improvements had failed over the course of seven years.

To succeed in a new referendum, we initiated an 18-month process to fully communicate with the community about the pressing need. The result -- a $16.7 million referendum that passed in every polling district with 67 percent of the ballots voting in favor -- was a testament to the power of engaging the public.

Geoffrey ZoellerGeoffrey Zoeller


Upon reviewing the unsuccessful referendums, I learned that key individuals in our community believed the public had not been fully educated about the need for repairs or the benefits of these improvements to the students (and to themselves as taxpayers). Also, considerable misinformation had been circulated among the public.

To remedy these issues, we initiated an aggressive communication plan with our school district website as the linchpin. First, we implemented a new communication platform, Schoolwires Centricity, that made it easy for us to post information and use interactive communication tools. Then we used every opportunity to drive people to our website, where they could find complete and detailed information, not only about construction needs, but other information about the district. Virtually every component of our initiative was posted on the website to engender trust.

What follows are some of our tactics:
•  Rectify misperceptions about district enrollment. For some time, the community had a false perception that a significant number of our students came from areas outside the taxpaying community. For this reason, we re-enrolled every one of our almost 3,000 students. The forms for re-enrollment and the results were posted online, as well as a demographic study detailing our projected enrollments.

•  Provide easy access to facility tours. We commissioned an architect to do a full survey of our facilities and posted the report and accompanying photos online. The photo gallery highlighted some of the most atrocious conditions, such as peeling roofs and 40-year-old science labs. A complete building-by-building electronic tour allowed visitors to inspect the facilities for themselves via the website. The actual building tours were not well-attended. Parents simply do not have time to attend on-site events, but our website made it easy to provide the access virtually.

We also created an animation of our proposed new facilities. Additional information included construction timelines and schedules and the complete line-item budget. We made this and other information available through traditional vehicles, such as the local media. However, we continually emphasized that complete and more up-to-date information was available on our website.

•  Maintain a steady flow of information.We routinely published electronic newsletters that highlighted different aspects of the need for the funding as well as positive news of student and district accomplishments. We alerted the community as to the availability of new newsletters through electronic alerts. We also left printed copies of the newsletters at municipal buildings, community and senior centers, and public libraries.

Finally, we posted on our website all presentations and updated information as soon as they became available. 

•  Engage the community through online surveys.We created numerous online surveys to give the community an opportunity to provide feedback and engage them more fully. A general survey elicited input on improvements needed in the district. More specific surveys asked for suggestions for improvement to individual buildings. The capability to easily implement the surveys and other interactive tools available on our web platform was essential to actively engaging the community in the process. 

•  Leverage expressed interest by constituents.At the end of the online surveys was an invitation for people to join our focus group. Nearly 150 constituents responded. In addition to organizing focus group meetings, we sent them a steady flow of information. Essentially, they became well-informed ìkey communicatorsî to others in the community. We used these individuals as ambassadors to counter misinformation. 

•  Highlight tax and voting information. We posted online information about the amount of state funding that would support the project and details about the tax impact on residents. It's important to go the extra mile to show the public the link between their tax increase and the positive impact on students, as well as on their personal wealth and home property value.

We also included information about where to register to vote. Providing this online was especially important for reaching younger constituents who get most of their information online. We also distributed absentee ballots to recent Westwood Regional graduates who were no longer in the area but eligible to vote.

Inside our schools and other facilities in the community, we placed poster boards and erected electronic kiosks with information about the referendum. We directed everyone back to the website for complete and controlled information.

•  Maintain community trust, using what we had built. Our communications did not stop with the successful passage of the referendum. Throughout the renovations, we posted regular updates, photos and completion notices documenting progress. Follow up often is overlooked by districts. Our constituents had placed their trust in us by passing the referendum, and we needed to continually demonstrate we were using taxpayer money wisely to accomplish the specified projects. Information about the renovations, now completed, remains on our website.

After our campaign in support of the referendum, the community told us they had never felt more informed and engaged.

Geoffrey Zoeller is superintendent of the Westwood Regional School District in Washington Township, N.J. E-mail: gzoeller@wwrsd.org