Can a Threat to Sports Generate Favorable Budget Votes?

by Kimberly Reeves

The growing anti-tax sentiment — and the ratcheting up of the approval rates needed to pass bond and levy elections in some states — means many school districts have to run smarter, tighter campaigns that are focused directly on what the community will pass.

The threat of pulling the high school sports program, in some cases, is the last-ditch effort to gain public support. In the West Contra Costa Unified School District in Richmond, Calif., then-Superintendent Gloria Johnston and her school board decided two years ago they could no longer fund sports — or libraries or music — if they couldn’t get a parcel tax passed.

Threatening to cut high school activities raised the stakes, but it was the threat to curtail interscholastic sports in the school district that finally got the taxpayers’ attention.

“It was a very dire threat, very serious,” says Al Kirkman, a retired counselor who would lead the community fundraising effort to replace sports funding. “I know why she had to do it, though. She had to get the community’s attention that she was really serious about cuts.”

Tough Sledding
West Contra Costa did not use an outside consultant, but many California school districts do. Every tax vote since the state adopted Proposition 13 in 1978 must pass by a two-thirds majority. Bond packages, which once required a two-thirds majority, now must pass by 55 percent.

That means there is little margin for error and explains why some school districts turn to Brad Senden of the Center for Community Opinion in San Ramon, Calif., for answers. Senden, a former statehouse communications director and political campaign manager, does the research needed to figure out which proposals are going to pass at the ballot box. His job is to “read” the community, to shape proposals that can get a super-majority.

“The percentages were so hard to achieve that schools here began to look for traditional political tools, campaign tools, that are usually used in political races,” he said. “It only took a few districts offering what they thought was an acceptable package getting their heads handed back to them on a platter to realize just how tough it was going to be.”

School districts selling a bond proposal are not always marketing savvy. One would talk sports facility renovations, but the real selling point was classroom additions. Others would say classroom additions, but it was a combined package that district voters wanted to see. A true picture gives school districts an idea of how to communicate on bond packages or levies.

A Negative Message
Some states have gone even further. In Minnesota, for instance, bond proposals can be contingent. A football stadium or a performing arts center may be in the offing, but only if classroom space is approved first. That strategy provides voters with the assurance that the school district is taking care of business and putting academics first.

“My personal sense is that the district is saying, we have an academic priority but a broad array of needs,” Senden said. “My experience is that when you put multiple things on the ballot, the response is abysmal. The voters end up thinking you aren’t capable of making up your mind on the things your district needs.”

Senden believes it’s crucial to make sure that bond packages and tax levies are not repeat trips to the ballot box. If you’re going to the ballot box five, six, seven times in a row, you’re sending an unintended negative message to the voters, he said.

And it’s likely that school administrators will turn to taxpayers and parents, not corporate sponsors, to support high school athletics, no matter how often a levy is defeated.

Gonzalo Bravo, an assistant professor of sports management at West Virginia University, has studied the pressures on budgeting for interscholastic sports in school districts. While turning to an outside source of funding — for instance, a corporate sponsor — may be the next wave in marketing, Bravo says most school districts still prefer to rely on parental support.

“As someone from another country, it’s amazing to me how big high school athletics is. You have 6,000 or 7,000 people in a stadium on a Friday night, attending a high school football game,” Bravo said. “I come from Chile, where we have 10,000 turn out for a professional soccer game. The opportunity for corporatization is there, but from a philosophical perspective, that kind of support is not acknowledged by public schools.”