Tips for Developing a Bond Referendum Campaign
Before You Begin
Several factors should be weighed before making the decision to pursue a referendum vote. They are such items as:
- Is the school board united behind the decision to pursue a referendum? A unified school board is not just important; it's an absolute must.
- Does the school district generally have the support of the local media?
- Is the Chamber of Commerce supportive of the public schools?
- What is the past history of school referendum campaigns in the area? What are the strengths of those that passed? What were the weaknesses of those that failed?
- Are members of the education association and other staff members supportive of the referendum effort? Are they willing to work for its passage?
- What other issues could impact the vote?
Once a board makes the final decision to pursue a bond referendum, attention is directed toward setting a date for the election. Generally the best time of the year is in the early fall, not the summer (vacations) or the spring (taxes). When you're looking for a referendum date, consider other issues likely to be on the same ballot to avoid competing interests. Try to give your district about six months to plan and implement the campaign.
The Citizens Committee
It is crucial to allow enough time to establish an effective campaign organization. The development of campaign materials, strategy, etc. is carried out by a citizens committee comprised of representatives from the community, teachers, parents, students, school board, administration, etc.
Under the committee's responsibility falls fund raising, public information, community and precinct organization, youth involvement and the "get out the vote drive."
- Are well planned and have one leader with committee chairs coordinating fundraising, data, publicity and volunteer activities. Committees need both workers and leaders. Some people are better at stuffing envelopes and making phone calls, and some are better at making presenting and lending their name; both are important. All should have the skills to involve and work with others.
- Are timed so that the committee has at least six months to work.
- Pay dogged attention to the details of completing 100 percent of the campaign’s priority activities — identifying "yes" voters and getting them to the polls.
- Raise the money, recruit the volunteers and find the in-kind contributions needed to meet campaign budget requirements.
- Intensify the final three weeks with emphasis on election day and poll watching activities to garner needed votes.
- Celebrate the success.
Referendum Time Line
Once a date is set the citizens committee needs to establish a timeline and adhere to it. A time line is basically a detailed schedule of events that must occur in order for a campaign to "peak" on election day. The time lines includes such things as the dates that advertisements will appear, the dates for community meetings, when voter registration will occur, etc.
Effective campaign messages are clear and concise and developed from survey research. The campaign uses voters’ information sources to target specific key messages to specific "yes" voters. These messages address voters’ desires for the schools and show how students will benefit from approval of the issue. No threatening messages are used.
A consistent campaign "logo" and slogan should be developed, making sure a uniform message is being carried to voters and reinforced each time it is used. Keep all materials child-centered. Voters are more apt to react positively to a referendum when materials have been designed around the benefits the referendum can bring their children and grandchildren than they are to promotional efforts dealing strictly with the square footage of new facilities site requirements or cold statistical information.
The most important thing to remember is to deal honestly and fairly with the public and to present them with enough factual information so they can make a wise decision.
Getting the Message Out
Successful campaigns rely on a variety of methods to reach voters with key messages and facts. Examples include:
- Newspaper ads
- Radio spots
- Campaign buttons
- Fact sheets
- Yard signs
- Store posters
- Bumper stickers
- Videotape or slide presentation
- Web sites
- Speeches at service clubs or business groups
- Building tours
It's important to use a mix of paid and unpaid media that is appropriate to your community. Sometimes a low profile approach is more successful than a big-budget approach.
Prepare publications that give specifics, don't just ask for a "yes" vote. Consider what information readers need to make a decision, and use a question-and-answer format for readability and usefulness.
All campaign materials must comply with rules of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Finance Disclosure Board. Also, school district resources cannot be used to influence an election. For more guidance, see Board Members Role in Special Elections.
The most important element of a successful campaign is identifying "yes" voters. Yes voters are most likely to be school employees, parents or others who have been supportive of the schools. Your committee will want to use voter lists to contact prospective voters, find out where they stand, then use pre-election phone calls to get yes voters to the polls.
Most strategists recommend focusing on the yes and undecided voters, while ignoring the no voters. You're unlikely to change the mind of a no voter; in fact, you may just generate greater opposition. Focus on those most likely to be supportive and get them to the polls.
To ensure voter turnout, use strategies such as phone banks, absentee ballots, targeted direct mail, and rides to the polls on election day for voters who have no transportation of their own.
Strategies for Success
- Don't forget that a referendum is a political campaign. Identify and monitor your yes votes. You must get the yes voters to the polls on election day.
- Remember to communicate with the public all year long, not just at election time.
- Empower parents with information. They must be knowledgeable to ensure a credible campaign.
- Involve representatives from as many citizen groups as you can. Grassroots organizations are effective; voters listen to neighbors' and friends' opinions.
- Stay away from the negative. Be ready to describe how passage of this issue will positively affect children and the future of the community.
Why Campaigns Succeed
Planning and diligence, plus attention to detail, are keys to a successful finance election. The National School Public Relations Association identifies the following elements shared by successful campaigns:
- The campaign is research-based--a survey is conducted and use; district and neighborhood records of previous elections are analyzed.
- The campaign is well planned and carefully timed.
- Positive attitudes have been fostered by year-round communication, especially on school financing.
- The campaign is a team effort with coordination among the school board, superintendent, staff and school support groups.
- The campaign is organized by school attendance areas and principals have key communication responsibilities.
- The campaign emphasizes personal contact.
- The campaign uses voter information sources and key messages to YES voters.
- During the campaign, the message is clear and concise and addresses the community's desires for its schools and tells how students will benefit from passing the issue at hand.
- The district's information campaign is clearly separated from the citizen's advocacy campaign.
- Voters are informed--but not threatened--about what is likely to occur if the proposal fails.
To garner needed votes, the campaign intensifies during the last three weeks with a final push on election eve and election day.
Why Campaigns Fail
When a finance issue is defeated, that doesn't necessarily mean that the campaign was mismanaged. Yet research shows that unsuccessful campaigns share these common characteristics:
- The campaign started too late and too much material went out too fast.
- The campaign was not based on research.
- The campaign was geared to the district at large and not to school neighborhoods and targeted voter groups.
- The information presented was too complex and too dollar-oriented.
- The campaign didn't have vigorous citizen leadership.
- The wrong information channels were used to reach voters.
- Campaign activities were not put in priority order or were not completed.
For more detailed information on passing finance elections, the National School Public Relations Association offers Win at the Polls, a 300-page guide for developing and implementing a winning strategy for bond issue or finance campaigns. Cost is $195.