The “New Rules” of Building Voter Confidence in your Capital Project

Over the past year, our school communities have faced an unpredictable and seemingly unending litany of difficult decisions. Beyond the decision to place their children in classrooms or opt for distance-learning, many are up against economic challenges that may well affect their willingness to support capital improvements in our schools. The grim reality is that putting off critical facilities needs will only lead to further deterioration and increased costs. Fortunately, the past year has shown that although it’s difficult (and sometimes impossible) to connect with voters in person, they can be successfully engaged through online and print communications. All it takes is a few small adjustments.

Involve community members early in the planning process. Actively seeking community input and involving active user groups in the decision-making process is key to building broad voter support among networks. For example, consider including one or more influential community members on your facilities committee during scope development. Hold a virtual community forum to discuss the district’s long-range plan and gauge their support for specific initiatives. Invite ideas and acknowledge all input—above all, demonstrate a willingness to listen and to consider the wants as well as the needs.

Clearly demonstrate the rationale for the project. It has often been challenging to energize voters to turn out for a “nuts and bolts” project. However, until economic variables begin to level out, big-ticket educational program spaces could be an even tougher sell. When explaining how the project’s components were chosen, be specific and show a clear cost vs. benefit. Is the boiler system going to cost more to repair than to replace? Is the roof system at the end of its warranty? Are the stairs cracked and crumbling?

Equip your committee, community leaders, and Board with talking points. By the time you’re ready to inform your voters about the project, you should already have a good idea of the questions and hot-button concerns that likely to have. Work up a list of expected questions and clear answers, and distribute it to these groups to ensure a unified response. There are fewer opportunities to talk to families at in-school functions like concerts and sports events, so it’s even more important to be prepared with consistent answers to their project questions when these opportunities arise.

Level-up your social media strategy. It’s important to remind people to vote on the day of the referendum, but it’s just as important to keep them engaged during the lead-up. Use your list of talking points to pepper your social media channels with a “question of the day.” Consider designing a unique project logo to include on your website and in social media posts about the project. Cross-post all fact sheets, newsletters, and presentations when they’re posted to your web site.

Plan ahead for public information meetings. Live-streams like Zoom have become the standard in lieu of an in-person meeting before the vote. However, getting feedback to and from attendees can be a technical challenge in real time. Offer an opportunity to submit questions ahead of the meeting (and after) via email, social media, or a web form. If possible, record the meeting and post it online.

Include an exit poll. Exit polls are an effective way to determine how well your voters understood you, and vice versa. Voters are motivated to make sure their voices are heard – let them! Most importantly, demonstrate that you’ve listened by thanking them for their input.

The record participation levels in the 2020-2021 district budget votes, combined with continued positive support of capital improvement projects for many districts since then, is proof positive that even in these uncertain times, our communities understand the importance of investing in our schools. It’s not only possible to stay connected while socially distancing, it’s an action that bears real fruit for our students, staff, and community members alike.

Tracy Thomas is a Business Development Manager and Public Information Campaign Coordinator at Campus. This article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of the CouncilGram, a monthly newsletter published by the New York State Council of School Superintendents.