Spotlight

Avon Lake’s Unconventional Conversation About Public Support

by Bob Scott

Calming the anxieties of the school district’s most ardent supporters was my top priority for awhile last fall. The public school boosters were more than a little uncomfortable hearing the superintendent say we didn’t want them out in their neighborhoods beating the bushes for votes in favor of the next operating levy, following a sound defeat a few months earlier. We also had no plans for promotional fliers or an advertising campaign.

Last fall, two dozen residents in the Avon Lake, Ohio, City School District joined me in deciding to challenge conventional wisdom. Our growing, middle-class community had just failed a proposed property tax increase of 6.08 mills by a 2-to-1 margin. Because citizens traditionally have supported its public school system and the 3,500 students it serves, we felt there was a problem deeper than just a failure to communicate. So instead of forming a citizens committee to wage one more traditional, in-your-face advocacy campaign, we created a partnership of citizens representing different voices in the school district to lead a frank and open community conversation about the upcoming levy proposal and related issues and concerns.

“Our short-term goal was to provide a productive way for citizens to talk about our school district’s proposed operating levy,” explains Andrea Sharb, the mother of two children who attend Avon Lake schools. Sharb also was the leader of the initiative to build an Avon Lake Community Partnership.

“Our ultimate goal, however, was both to strengthen the bond between our schools and community and to strengthen our entire community overall,” she said. “We want this community partnership to serve as an open forum to discuss a broad spectrum of important community issues and concerns in a civil and respectful manner.”

Inclusive Conversations
In the community conversations about our district’s proposed operating levy, we worked hard to include as many citizens as possible — especially those who historically have not been supportive of spending on public education. Our theme, “Join the Community Conversation,” was created to attract all of the voices in our district. Two months prior to the levy election, yard signs bearing this theme and two companion signs reading “Want to know more?” and “Call 933-0202.” were placed in a Burma-shave-sign fashion at strategic locations throughout the community.

Simultaneously, the Avon Lake Board of Education mailed a letter and postage-paid reply card to all school district residents inviting them to join in this important districtwide conversation. More than 100 cards were returned from residents expressing an interest in becoming involved in coffee discussions with school board members.

To remain true to their commitment to lead a frank and open discussion about the proposed operating levy, neither the school board nor the community partnership team ever tried to convince residents to vote for the proposed tax increase. There were no “Vote for the Levy” signs, no promotional fliers asking residents to support the levy, and no newspaper ads, radio commercials or TV spots asking them to vote yes.

This strategy proved to be unsettling for some of the district’s most enthusiastic school supporters. In the past, these traditional campaign symbols had provided them with a sense of security, and now these symbols were nowhere in sight.

Engagement Tactics
On the surface, the community partnership-led activities that preceded the election day looked a lot like a traditional levy campaign. Fifty informal coffee discussions were held. Two hundred volunteers distributed information to every household in the community. Board members spoke with 140 key neighborhood leaders. And two districtwide meetings were held. But a look beneath the surface reveals an entirely different approach.

Unlike the typical levy campaign in which the appeal is made to the yes voters and the message is about separating the “good guys” from the “bad guys,” this time the audience and the message were different. The audience shifted dramatically to include those who had been opposed to the levy, and the message was found more in our actions rather than in our words. We listened.

Each time a resident or group of residents was engaged in a conversation about the levy, they were asked what they thought about the idea of building a permanent network of citizens to address school and community challenges. With rare exceptions, no matter whether they were for or against the levy proposal, they enthusiastically supported the idea of creating an Avon Lake Community Partnership.

For two months, the community was saturated with opportunities to learn about and discuss the proposed operating levy to maintain the current level of educational programs and services in the Avon Lake Schools. And for two months, the leaders of the community conversation resisted the growing temptation to revert back to a traditional in-your-face levy advocacy campaign.

“We received dozens of calls from residents who thanked us for inviting them to be a part of this important public conversation about our schools and community,” said Avon Lake Board of Education member Pam Ohradzansky. “We hit a positive nerve in our community with this non-traditional approach to discussing a proposed school tax issue.”

Progress in Defeat
On Nov. 8, the payoff of using a community partnership strategy to discuss the merits of a proposed school tax issue became evident in two significant ways. First, trust and confidence in the Avon Lake Board of Education increased dramatically and, as a result, we were able to move a major step closer to passing our operating levy by reducing the margin of defeat from 30 percent in May to 6percent six months later.

Secondly, the residue of anger and frustration that usually accompanies a school levy election did not materialize. Rather than dividing our community into pro-levy and anti-levy camps and polarizing the district over the results of a divisive campaign, the tone established by holding a community conversation helped us move forward in a positive way after the election, despite the disappointing outcome.

On Nov. 17, with a wind chill factor dipping into the teens, more than 50 citizens — some of whom had been afraid to openly support the school levy — showed up at the Avon Lake Library to discuss the consequences of the levy defeat and identify other community issues and concerns to be addressed by the Avon Lake Community Partnership.

Bob Scott is superintendent of the Avon Lake City Schools, 175 Avon Belden Road, Avon Lake, OH 44012. E-mail: rscott4@leeca.org