Dale Scott: An Insider’s Guide to School Bonds

Dale Scott teaches the importance of strategizing, preparing and campaigning for a bond easily can fall to the wayside.

By SchoolCEO Last Updated: June 27, 2023


School bonds are a powerful instrument that can rally a community in support of future development. The importance of strategizing, preparing and campaigning for a bond can easily fall to the wayside. Dale Scott has provided municipal advisory and election consulting services for California schools and community colleges for over 35 years.


Join SchoolCEO Conversations in an interview with Dale Scott on practical advice and smart thinking about how to set up your next bond to succeed.

Dale Scott is the President of DS&C in San Francisco, which has provided municipal advisory and election consulting services for California schools and community colleges for over 35 years. Consistently ranking among the top municipal advisors in California, Dale and his team have helped hundreds of school districts address their funding challenges.

Dale is widely viewed within the bond industry as one of its most innovative thinkers. In partnership with Jefferson Union High School District (San Mateo County), he created the nation’s first voter-approved general obligation bond to construct below-market rental housing for teachers and staff in the district. This unique approach went on to receive Bond Buyer’s Small-Issuer Deal of the Year award in 2018. Dale and his team have also received Inc. Magazine’s Best in Business award, given to companies that have had a “superlative impact on their industries, their communities, the environment, and society as a whole.” In 2022, Inc. Magazine also named DS&C one of the 5000 fastest-growing private businesses in the United States. Dale holds two patents from the United States Patent and Trademarks Office for debt financing mechanisms. He is the author of Win-Win: An Insider’s Guide to School Bonds. He has appeared before numerous taxpayer organizations and statewide school district symposiums as a frequent guest speaker on school district finance and elections. Dale holds degrees from San Francisco State University and Harvard University.

Learn more about Dale Scott & Co. here.


Intro Quote: Dale Scott (Guest): When you ask voters this question in a survey, do you agree or do you disagree with this statement? Our schools are our most important local institution. We get absolute, everybody agrees with that. 90% of the voters will say yes, regardless of what party they're in, regardless of age, regardless of whether they have children or they don't have children. They may disagree about the details. They may disagree about taxation, but communities support schools. Now, you want to make sure they understand what those schools do and how important that they are and that these are publicly owned institutions and that we have to make sure that we have to take care of them and make sure that they do well.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Welcome back to another episode of SchoolCEO Conversations. Thank you for being here and for listening. This podcast is an extension of SchoolCEO Magazine, which publishes original research and perspectives to help empower school superintendents and other K-12 leaders. I am your host, Tyler Vawser, and to that end, I sit down with leaders in education and in business to discuss how to better market and promote your schools. In this episode, I speak with Dale Scott, who has been working with California schools and community colleges for over three decades to help them successfully pass bonds. In this conversation, we discuss both high level strategies as well as specific tactical recommendations that will increase the likelihood of a successful bond campaign. I asked Dale to join SchoolCEO because he is widely viewed within the bond industry as one of its most innovative thinkers. In partnership with Jefferson Union High School District in San Mateo County, he created the nation's first voter approved general obligation bond to construct below market rental housing specifically for teachers and staff in the district. Consistently ranking among the top municipal advisors in California, Dale and his team have helped hundreds of school districts address their funding challenges. This episode can serve as a resource to anyone within a school district, from the superintendent to the Board of Education to a volunteer, anyone that wants to see their district finances improve and benefit their community. Let's join the conversation. Thanks for joining me for this. I'm excited to chat with you.

Dale Scott (Guest): Thank you very much.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Dale, do you want to start just by talking about your background and how you got into advising school districts on finances and bonds?

Dale Scott (Guest): Sure. And thanks again for the opportunity here. It's very exciting. I have a very circuitous route into this. After high school, I spent a lot of time traveling around the world. I lived in Berlin for a while. It was actually West Berlin. I lived in Mexico City. I traveled through Japan, and I found that I was becoming very, very interested in how cities worked. And I was living in San Francisco at the time I finished college, and I decided to apply to graduate school in public policy. I ended up in the graduate School of Design at Harvard, which had city planning and architecture. 

And I found very quickly a couple of things. One, that the architecture students had much better parties than any of the policy people. That was a given right off the bat. But then what is I would sit and listen to these architecture students talk about large urban design plans and they were incredible, incredible students. But in the back of my mind there was always this thought, how do you pay for that? How are you going to pay for that? So I went to this professor and I told him that I was becoming more and more interested in how cities finance themselves and how they finance capital projects. And I was thinking about going into what's called municipal finance, public finance sometimes it's called, and he immediately told me that that was a terrible idea, that it was an incredibly boring profession, that nobody really wanted to do it, there was no growth in it whatsoever. 

And being something of a contrarian, I said, well, this sounds like it might be pretty interesting. And so I ended up going down to Wall Street getting a job as an investment banker in a public finance department at one of the firms there. Did that for a couple years, found it very interesting, moved back to San Francisco and began running the public finance department for what was then Wells Fargo Bank and saw that school districts in California and there's over a thousand school districts and community college districts. But at that point in time they really didn't have many people helping them on their overall capital facilities financing plan. So we started working with school districts. I ended up leaving Wells Fargo, starting my own advisory firm over 30 years ago and here we are today. I do think back every once in a while about how lucky I was to have this professor who told me what a terrible idea this was. I probably would have never gone into it if he told me, yeah, that's a great idea, go do it. But just the way I think.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Interesting. Yeah, very contrarian. I am curious, since you've been at this for a while over 30 years, what are some common mistakes that you see school leaders and city leaders make before they even begin to campaign for a bond or to launch some kind of millage or bond campaign?

Dale Scott (Guest): Right. I would say the absolute number one mistake or benefit, depending on how you look at it, is they fail to consider the differences between election dates. What do I mean by that? We have a tendency both as voters, and I know school administrators, to think of all elections as kind of the same. And we always talk about the voters, the voters, the voters, but they're very different. 

And there's a great story, a campaign advisor up in Sacramento once told me that always stayed with me and I'll share it with you. He said, “Dale, I think of voters like my family and my father, he's a rock rib Republican. There's no way he's going to vote for a school bond, but he votes in every election. My mother, she's a Democrat, but she's a pretty conservative Democrat. She'll vote for a school bond. She wants to vote for a school bond, but she's got to be convinced. She's got to make sure it makes sense financially and for her family. And she votes in most elections, not all of them, but most. My sister, she's a single mom. She has never seen a school bond election that she didn't like. She would support any bond election. She is not a very frequent voter, and she is not a Republican or a Democrat. She's an Independent, but she rarely, rarely votes. So here's what we're going to do. We're going to forget about my father. We're going to give my mother enough information so she supports the measure, and we're going to find an election that my sister votes in.” So I think that is a great strategy and it's a great way of thinking about it. And too often, people just go off on elections without really thinking about that date.

Dale Scott: It's always great when the numbers match up with the story. So let's talk about the numbers. In California prior to the year 2000, school bond elections, for passage of a school bond election, it had to be two thirds, two thirds of the voters that voted for the ballots cast. That law changed in 2000 and went into effect in 2001, and it lowered that threshold from two thirds down to 55%. And that really opened the floodgates for bonds. Before then, it was very, very hard to pass a school bond in California. 

So from the year 2001 to today, there have been over 1700 school bond elections under that 55% threshold. So now we have over 1,700 pieces of data we can look at to say, okay, what works and what doesn't work? And here's what you find if you look at that data, the overall passage rate for those bonds since the year 2001 has been about 80%. Now, that changes depending on if you're in liberal districts, if you're in conservative districts, etcetera, etcetera. But by large, 80%. However, for school district bonds and community college district bonds that are on the presidential election date with the highest turnout that's say 2004, 2008 2012, etcetera, etcetera, those passed at over 90%. 

Measures that were on gubernatorial ballots passed at 80%. And those measures and these are roughly a third, a third and a third, by the way, those bonds that were on primaries, either presidential or gubernatorial primaries or special elections, passed at just a little over 70%. So there's a huge difference. Why? Well, we go back to the family thinking about that family. The father, he's going to vote in every election. And he's a no voter, he's a given. He's going to vote in a primary. He's going to vote in a special election. He's always going to show up. The mom, okay, she's probably going to show up. She's probably going to be a supporter. The daughter, she's a supporter. But she is really only going to vote in a presidential election consistently. Maybe she comes to one or two others, but you can pretty much bet if she's going to vote in any election, it's going to be in that presidential election. 

So the numbers are very clear. They change from district to district and area to area, obviously, but statewide, that's what we found. So again, that's the number one issue that people ignore. Now, sometimes you just can't wait to get on that ballot. You may have a facility that needs repairs immediately, and the presidential election is three years away. Okay, so then you're going to have to get on a gubernatorial ballot. But to the extent that you just go in and say, we're just going to get on the next ballot or we're just going to try it on this one, or we're going to try it on that, that's a big mistake. You really need to spend some time thinking about that.

Tyler Vawser: Interesting. Yeah, that's really practical advice, especially breaking down the numbers like that. What other mistakes do you see school leaders making other than picking the wrong time of year or picking the wrong election to have their bond?

Dale Scott: Well, there's two big mistakes that I see. The first is school districts love to tell people what they're going to get. They love to talk about all the good things they're going to do. And I'm not saying that's not important, and that's important certainly to many voters. But again, we go back to that family and we think about that mom. What she wants to hear is, how is this going to be good for my community? How is this going to be good for my family? And so there's sometimes an overemphasis on talking about all the stuff that's going to happen and less emphasis on why this is good for the community at large. 

The second common mistake is to start talking about it too soon. That is a very consistent mistake. People want to get, I mean, it's natural. People want to get out. They're excited. They want to get out and get their message going. They're running a campaign. They want to get yard signs out. They want to get going. But the fact of the matter is, most people, they just don't think about an election until they get really close to it a couple of months out, max. 

Now, that doesn't mean you can't go out and have dialogue with the community about your needs, dialogue about the challenges that you face. But as a consultant one time said to me about it, he said, you want to think about need. Need. That's really what you want to talk about. If you start talking about bonds too early, people are just going to say, well, there they go again. You've got to let them know why you're going to go forward. 

And then I think the third thing that's a consistent mistake and we can talk about it in depth later if you'd like, but that's that they don't put enough thought into the message. The message remember, especially in a presidential election, but also in gubernatorial and primary elections, there's a lot of information swirling around in an election period, election cycle, too much information sometimes. And so to try to get a person to really think through and listen to all of the arguments in favor of a school bond is tough. 

So you really want to figure out what's the core message that will make sense to the voter and make that voter say, okay, I get it, I'm going to be a supporter for this. Assuming they are, they have the attempt, as I said, some are just going to be no voters no matter what you say, but really thinking through that core message and distilling it down in a digestible form.

Tyler Vawser: So let's dig into that a little bit more because when you think about how much noise there is around a presidential election, what messages do you see stand out? Given the fact that mostly every TV ad is going to be about a presidential election or something that's not a school bond, something that is seen as more important, or at least certainly there's more ad dollars being spent on it. So what messages have you seen work when they're being successful during a presidential year?

Dale Scott: Well, presidential and non-presidential, it's sort of the same process. It really depends on the district and the demographics of the district. The message in a working class community is going to be different than the message in an affluent suburb. The message for a community college district is going to be different than the message for an elementary school district. The message for a heavily Republican district is going to be different from a Democratic district, highly Democratic district. 

However, there are some core messages and they tend to change over time. So for example, in high schools and in community colleges, we're now finding that career training is a huge, huge plus. People understand what the value of that is for their family and for their community. The fact that the bond dollars are going to be spent in the local community and aren't going to be siphoned off by the state and spent someplace else, it sounds obvious, but it's not for many voters, they really don't know how schools are funded. And when they hear that these tax dollars are going to be spent in their community, they suddenly perk up and say, oh, okay, now I'm more interested in this. Student safety is a big issue that's coming up a lot now and knowing that those bond dollars are going to be watched carefully, sometimes by outsiders, sometimes by an oversight committee, by audits, etcetera, that also resonates with voters.

Tyler Vawser: A lot of folks in the general population just don't understand how bonds work. And before we started recording, you were talking about this, about how understanding that local control and just sometimes educating people on how a bond actually works and what happens when it fails, what happens when it passes, how the money is used, can be a really strong message because people feel like they're learning in the process. So I wonder if you can just double click on that and kind of explore how you've used that in messaging.

Dale Scott: It gets lost, frankly, and sometimes it's controversial. And I'll tell you what I mean by that. There's an organization in San Diego County called the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. It's a great organization. We're huge supporters of it. I think they do great work within that county. And now I help them teach a class on bond financing for local leaders, administrators, school board members, etcetera, etcetera. 

So we just had a class recently, and I mentioned that a very powerful argument that we saw in the last presidential and the last gubernatorial election in California was the one I just mentioned, that if you knew that these bond monies would be spent locally and couldn't be taken by the state and spent elsewhere, would you be more likely or less likely to vote for the bond? That was a question that we often ask in the survey research and that across the board, regardless of the demographics of the district, rural urban, on the Oregon border, on the Mexican border, Republican, Democrat, it resonated among voters. 

The head of the Taxpayers Association pushed back on that and he said he thought that was manipulation to lean on that argument, that it was obvious that these dollars couldn't be spent. And he didn't use the word pandering, but he was making that argument. Here's what I said. I said, listen, most voters don't really know how school districts work. We'll do survey research in a school district and we will ask the question, do you now have or have you ever had children or grandchildren attend school in this particular school district? And it's stunning. We'll find often 50%, 60%, or more of the voters have never had children in that school district or grandchildren. And it's mind blowing for school board members who they think their constituents are parents because those are the people that come and talk to them and complain and ask them questions. 

But the reality is the vast majority of voters often have no idea not only what the school district does, but how they fund themselves and how they work. And they think the state pays for all the construction or they think that this money comes from someplace else. They haven't really thought about it. So to the extent that we can educate voters about how these funds are going to be used and how there's going to be local control I think is very important and I don't find it to be in any way manipulative. I think it's really part of the most essential process of that election campaign is to make sure people understand where their tax dollars are going.

Tyler Vawser: That's really interesting and you mentioned that it crosses all different kinds of divisions and political ideologies which I think is important to note, especially as things become more and more hostile on different sides.

Dale Scott: It's a unifying message because people all agree. When you ask voters this question in a sort of a do you agree or do you disagree with this statement our schools are our most important local institution. You get absolutely everybody agrees with that. 90% of the voters will say yes regardless of what party they're in, regardless of age, regardless whether they have children or they don't have children. 

They may disagree about the details, they may disagree about taxation but communities support schools. Now you want to make sure they understand what those schools do and how important that they are and that these are publicly owned institutions and that we have to make sure that we have to take care of them and make sure that they do well.

Tyler Vawser: You mentioned surveys a little bit ago and I wonder if we can talk about that. A lot of school districts and school leaders will put out kind of a survey in anticipation of going out for a bond to see what is the appetite for something. And so let's talk a little bit about surveys. Dale, I'm curious when is a survey a good idea and when should someone think twice before putting out a survey before they go out for a know?

Dale Scott: It's easy to put down surveys and people say, oh, they never answer the telephone or they don't like them or they're flawed. They're not perhaps as good as they used to be. But there are techniques that good survey consultants will use now that make sure that you're getting a robust and vibrant group of respondents and then they're stratified in order to have representation, etc, etc without going too deeply into the weeds. 

The question about whether they are good to do or bad to do and when you should do them and how you put them together. Sometimes I see school districts want to do it, I guess you would say on the cheap. They want to put something out to their parents, for example. They want to do it with SurveyMonkey and just put it out on a platform that's going to cost them very little. Unfortunately, you're getting a very biased view. Usually when you do that, you really need to have somebody come in that knows what they're doing, put the questions together in a way that will lead the respondent down the path so they're understanding the various issues. And you get a really good idea not only about whether they'll support the bond, but what issues are important for them. How they feel about the district, how they feel about the district's management of their finances, how they feel about the board. 

These are really important questions that have to be asked and they have to be asked in a way in privacy so a person feels comfortable answering those questions. Here's a good story, one time to illustrate the need. We did a survey, this was a number of years ago, but it was at a community college out in the Central Valley of California and I was giving the results. The results were very strong. They had a two third support for a bond. But one of the board members, as I was giving these results, I could tell this guy wasn't buying it. He was giving me real steely eye through the entire presentation. And so I finish and I said any questions? And his light goes on and he says to me, are you telling me that 65% of the voters in this district support this bond? 

And I said, “I'm telling you that 65% of the people that took this survey support this bond as of when we did this survey.” And he says I just find that hard to believe because I don't know a single person that would vote yes on this bond. And then he stops and he thinks for a second and to his credit he says maybe I just know the wrong people.

And I say yeah. I mean we all have a tendency to talk to people that we agree with and agree with us. And so yeah, that’s what I think happened. And by the way, that bond did go. They did get on the ballot and they did get about 65% yes in the final vote. So when do you do that survey and when should you not do a survey? That's a tough question and it really depends. If you think there's going to be significant opposition that might coalesce, then you probably want to hold back on the survey until close to the election date, see if that opposition does come to the forefront. 

You might want to include some of the questions about that the opposition is making, the arguments some of the opposition is making. But you want to be a little careful if you're in the more conservative districts where you think there might be significant opposition. On the other hand, if you're in a district that has a very, very small voter base, then it's just tough anytime to do the vote, to do a survey. I'm sorry. If you're in a district with a very small voter base it's very hard to do a survey that's going to give you a statistically significant result. We put in a proposal a number of years ago to a small mountain community up in the Sierra Nevadas, very small number of voters. The superintendent called me and said you're the only person that put in a proposal for these services that didn't recommend doing a voter survey. How do you know you just don't have enough voters to survey? I mean, why don't you just go down to the local cafe and talk to them? 

That's kind of a lot easier than spending money to try to gin up a survey on this. So you got to think about what's the cost benefit on these surveys. Nevertheless, if you have the ability to do the survey, if you have the funding and you have enough voters, you just can't beat those results. With one, I won't say exception, but with one addition, I'm seeing more and more districts interested in going into focus groups rather than surveys. And I think you're going to see more of that. I think the focus groups, they're expensive, but the results they can give you provide a nuance that you just can't get in a survey. So we'll see where that goes.

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Tyler Vawser: I would imagine one dangers of a school district doing their own surveys is that they are going to reach out to people that they already know they're connected to the school district in some way. That's how the school district has their name or their contact information. And so I would imagine that those folks are already more pro school, pro bond than someone that is disconnected. 

And then you mentioned this earlier that in most districts there's a pretty good percentage of people that have not had kids or grandkids in the district. And I wonder what's the best way for school districts to be able to survey and poll or get them in a focus group, get that group of people that don't have a connection to the school district. How should they be polling or serving those folks?

Dale Scott: Well, you're right. I mean, you'll find it every once in a while. It's less and less now, but occasionally we'll come into a district and one of the administrators will say, oh, yeah, we did a survey of all of our parents and here's what we found. My first question is, are they voters? Are all of them voters? Well, I don't know, we didn't ask that question. Yeah, you only have to talk to voters. So that's number one. You have to be interviewing people who are not only registered voters, but who vote. This goes back to kind of our original comment about picking the right election and who votes and why, and it really comes down to turnout. I'll get back to the survey in just a second. 

But if we look at it again, turning back to California elections, if you look at presidential elections over the last 20 plus years, voter turnout in those elections is often over 80%. It's ratcheted up in the last couple of years. So when you're looking at some communities it's 90%, but it's in that 70% to 90% range that drops down in a gubernatorial ballot still pretty good, maybe 60% or 70% in some communities. And then when you get into the specials and the primaries, it goes way down. It can go down to 40%. I saw one election recently I was looking at for a district that did a special election, and the voter turnout was 20%.

Tyler Vawser: Wow. That's very low.

Dale Scott: Oh, yeah. So remember that first story, the father always votes. Well, that's the person that's going to the polls. And years ago, I was doing a bond election down in a community and working class community down in Los Angeles County. And for a variety of reasons, I found myself one night visiting a local bingo game where I was talking to the voters and sat next to this woman who was playing four or five cards at the time. 

And I asked her, well, what do you think about this school bond measure? And she says, no, it's not going to pass. Not going to pass. And I said, Why is that? She goes, man, nobody's going to vote for that. Nobody knows about it, nobody's even thinking about it. Well, it passed 75%. Yes, but she just wasn't really considering it but she has to be surveyed is my point. Even though that didn't hit, it didn't come out the way she thought it was going to, her opinion has to be taken into consideration. 

So when you're surveying, you have to have the pollster. First of all, make sure they're only talking to registered voters. Then you have to ask them, are they going to vote in the next election? So if we're in a presidential ballot and the person upcoming in a presidential ballot and the person says, I'm not sure, well, they're out. They're not part of the survey. Because if you're saying, I'm not sure I'm going to vote in a presidential ballot, then you're probably not a voter. I mean, most people are pretty firm on that. Then when it gets into the other elections, you have to really slice and dice that and make sure you're thinking about only the consistent. 

Are we talking about only voters that are consistent voters? They're voting in every election. Are we looking at the consistent and the semi consistent voters? What happens when we take out the now and then casual voters? You really have to think about what that mix is as you're looking at various election dates in the surveys.

Tyler Vawser: So after the survey, you've got the data regardless of what it says. What are those deciding factors as a result of the survey? I would imagine one is you may not go for the bond if you see that there is no support and you feel confident in the quality of the survey. But let's say the survey comes back and it's mostly positive, maybe even more than mostly positive, what should a school leader do with that information?

Dale Scott: Well, there's a couple of roads you have to go down. Sometimes the main project that you want to finance may not be the marquee project that grabs the voters attention. So you have to balance the need to disclose and be as honest as possible, as honest as you can with voters with whom you do not have a lot of time to make sure they understand all the projects, but you may not want to make that your lead project. Okay? That happens occasionally, not a lot. You have to decide, are the voters going to support a tax at a rate which will allow us to raise enough money to do the projects that we want to do? That's a key decision. 

And then the most critical decision is, I think, how can we best communicate with the voters? And here's what I mean by that. Most people on the outside looking in, they think, oh, if you're going to run a school bond or a city bond or a college bond, then you need to have what I call an advocacy campaign. You have to get that yes on a committee together and start doing all the things that campaign committees do. That's not always the case. I mean, that is really not always the case for a few reasons. 

You may have found in this survey that you have overwhelming support and you simply don't have the ability to raise the funds necessary to communicate with all the voters that are in your community. We're working with a high school district out in the Central Valley. They have over 200,000 voters. That's a huge amount of money that you have to raise if you really want to go out and communicate with those voters, be it through TV or radio or print, however you want to do it. 

So you have to make a decision. Can we have a bond measure on the ballot and communicate with voters? Not through advocacy, but just through information, just by providing them full information. This is what it's going to cost. This is what the project we call those information campaigns, they're sending information out, balanced information reviewed by legal counsel to make sure that it stays within the law. Rather than that, let's go out and do walks or telephone banks or whatever the campaign advisor is suggesting. So there's various decisions you have to make along the way.

Dale Scott: I want to go back and talk about something I said earlier, which is you have to also slice and dice the demographics of the community when you're making that decision. So what do I mean by that? I'll give you an example. 

In the 2020 election of November, which was a difficult presidential election, it was in the middle of COVID, voter turnout wasn't quite as high as it has usually been in California, and there was a lot of angst going on in a number of communities, even though in presidential elections, on average, over 90% of the bond elections pass, in that election, the passage rate was closer to 80%. So it fell off quite a bit. But when we got the final results, I looked at those results district by district based on the percentage of Republican registration. Now, that's not Republicans are this and Democrats are that. It's just that I wanted to know as a marker for fiscal conservatives, and that's a pretty good marker for Republican registration. I wanted to know what effect does that have on passage of bond in that election? And here's what I found somewhere. 

For those districts that had Republican registration below about 33%, 34% in that range, those bonds did go up to that 90% passage rate. It's actually higher than 90%, 95%. So 90%, 95% of the bond measures in communities where the Republican registration was below 30-35% passed. In the districts where it was over that amount of Republican registration, the passage rate for those bonds was about 50%. So that's what I mean when I'm saying you have to think about the demographics of the community. You can't just say, and political consultants are really guilty of this, frankly, you can't just say, oh, this is what we did in all the other districts. We're going to do the same thing here and we're going to make them move up to two thirds or to 55%, whatever we need. It just doesn't happen. You have to change the message and make sure you're talking to people in a way that they understand and is important to them. And that's a different message in the more fiscally conservative districts than it is in the lesser conservative districts.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's really interesting. Well, and I think that goes back to what you said about local control, even when you might be fiscally conservative, but knowing that there's local control over that money, the federal government, the state government can't take over, that is important for voters to know.

Something you told me earlier was that sometimes people imagine that they have great supporters, that they're going to pass this, but each supporter still only gets one vote. And I wonder if we can explore that a little bit because I think sometimes there's a feeling that success is guaranteed because the supporters you do have are behind you, they back you, but they get one vote just as much as a detractor or someone that's going to vote no gets.

Dale Scott: Yeah, well, actually the mistake gets made on both sides of the ledger. It's very often the case that you'll find the no voter falls into the category, which I call the “I would have” voter. I would have voted for this, except you didn't. I would have voted for this if you had put the stadium lights in. I would have voted for this if you just would have told me that it wasn't going to be used for administrators, pensions, etcetera, etcetera. And you can spend as much time as you want trying to explain to this voter how no that is in there. 

No, we do have the ability, no, that's not going to happen. It doesn't matter. They're always going to have something else. You're never going to get that voter to turn into a yes voter because they're just making excuses as to why they're voting no, and they're a no voter. And the reality is, it's okay, that's why we have elections. You have yes voters and you have no voters. That's okay. The opposite happens. Also, school districts and community college districts, a lot of times they want to, it's a trite phrase, but they want to preach to the choir. They like to go out and they want to tell the voter all these things that they're going to get, but they're talking to the people that are already supporters, that are already there. And there's a national political consultant that uses a great line. He says, “you don't get any extra credit for the person that says, well, I was a supporter at first, but now that I hear this, now I'm really excited about this. It's still just one vote.” You don't get two votes for making the yes voter really excited. Now, you might get them to the polls in an off election, and that's important, but you're not going to generate additional yes votes from that person. You got to factor into that yes, that middle yes vote that you need to move to the polls and into the yes column.

Tyler Vawser: One question about that. Have you had any campaigns that have been able to effectively use those advocates, those super advocates, to better spread the messaging to people that are in the middle, that neutral group that their mind is not made up yet. They're trying to decide. I'm curious to hear what have you seen to be successful there, and maybe what are even some of the pitfalls of trying to activate that advocacy group?

Dale Scott: Yeah, well, that brings up a larger issue, and I'll take it in pieces. The quick answer is there's almost never a single one advocate. Almost never. Sometimes you'll have one particular person that speaks for the community. It may be the mayor and he or she has been the mayor for 25 years, and they are seen as the representative of the community. That doesn't happen that often.

Dale Scott: Now let's talk about the ballot and then I'm going to get back to these representatives. Typically, a ballot will have two pieces, and it may be different in different states, I'm not sure. But in California, there's two pieces to the ballot measure. There's the actual ballot language that the voter is voting on. And then in California, we have something that's called the argument. And the argument is just as it sounds. It's an argument that's filed in favor or in opposition to the ballot measure. And you can have in California up to five people sign that argument, for or against. 

So what I tell districts and campaigns is, what you want in those signatures is you want diversity. I said, I know you've never done this, but I have, which is, I may not read that carefully written, carefully constructed argument, but I do drop down to the bottom and I read the names of the people that sign it, and I say, oh, if she's for it, I'm for it. Or conversely, well, if he's for it, I'm against it. So you really want to think about who those people, and they don't have to be named names. They might be a firefighter, they might be an emergency room technician, they might be a person who's a teacher of the year. They might not be people that everybody knows, but the person can relate to them.

However, I want to go back to that issue about the ballot language. And this gets lost all the time, and I should have mentioned this at the beginning, that ballot language, in my mind, is the most important piece of the entire puzzle. Everybody talks about going out and getting advocates started, having campaigns, about sending mail, about doing surveys, etcetera, etcetera. But the only piece of the puzzle that every voter reads is that ballot language. 

And I'm convinced some voters don't even read the entire ballot language. They read the beginning, they might read the end. So those words are super important. They're the most critical words. Now, when I started doing election work, I found to my horror, that language, the drafting of that language, was often handed over to the lawyers. No knock on the lawyers, but they're not known for their supple prose, let's just put it that way. And so I said, you want the lawyers to write this. You want somebody that's going to actually write it, somebody who knows how we'll give it to the lawyers to review, obviously. 

But you want that ballot measure, that wording, to resonate with the voter that's reading it so they, one, understand what's going on, unlike many of the measures where you walk away scratching your head saying, what was that about? It's so convoluted, you can't figure out you want them to understand what they're going to get in general and the fact that this is going to support their local schools. So two things about that. When we do a bond measure after the ballot language everybody agrees to it. It's all done, ready to go. We send it to a professional proofreader. 

Why? Because the worst thing you can possibly have in a school bond ballot measure is a grammatical error or a misspelling, which also happens. So you really have to make sure that that wording is perfect, absolutely perfect. Sometimes we'll actually build it. I like to think of it as kind of like a sandwich. Typically, certainly in California and other jurisdictions as well, there are some legal requirements that have to go into that language. Well, usually we'll put that in the middle of the sandwich and we'll put something at the beginning that people can understand and relate to. They might kind of skim through the legal stuff, and then when they get to the bottom, it ends up with something that's also understandable and that can resonate with them.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's really interesting. What about when a bond fails, right? What's the best way to recover from a failed bond initiative?

Dale Scott: That easy. I mean, not on the next absolute election. But here is what happens often, which is hard to understand, but I get it. When a district or a city in some cases gets on the ballot, there's a fair amount of bravado that often happens. We're going to give it our best shot. This is something we really need. And if it loses, we're just going to dust ourselves off and we're going to get back on the ballot and try it again. Because this is something that's critical, that often doesn't happen. You often hear a lot of, then it's human, I get it, but you hear a lot of moaning, oh, people don't like us, they didn't vote for it. I heard a lot of bad things said about us. We're just feeling a little tender right now. You got to come at it as a business. 

Look, if this is something that you really need, if you're asking voters, if you're saying there is no other way we can finance this and this is critical, the support of this bond measure is critical to our educational mission. And you get 51%, but you need 55% or you get 48% and you need 50%, then you've got to go back out and just do a better job of explaining it to them. Otherwise, what's the message? If you say, okay, we're going to wait another four years or eight years? Well, the message is, well, then you didn't need it. It's like the kid that comes to the father and says, I need $20. And the father says, no, I'm not going to give you $20. And the kid says, well, what about $10? I'm glad I didn't give you $20 because you didn't really need $20. So you got to think about what that message is. If you really need it, you've got to get back on the next reasonable ballot.

Tyler Vawser: That's really interesting. I had not thought about that before. If you're telling people the messages, we need this, and then you're willing to wait for eight years, you didn't need it as much as you were saying.

Dale Scott: It's a bad message, and it's subtle, but I think it lands with the voter. It says, yeah, I've heard this story before, and you told me eight years ago or ten years ago that everything was going to go to hell, and it didn't. That's a bad message.

Tyler Vawser: As we get close to wrapping up here, I'd love for you to talk about your experience working on one of the first bonds for teacher and staff housing. Could you talk about that experience and what the district was trying to solve?

Dale Scott: You know, over the course of my career in this field, I have worked on just a number of really interesting and innovative projects, but I would have to say this was the most exciting and one of the most moving. There is a school district in California in the county of San Mateo. The name of the district is Jefferson Union High School District. They service the cities of Daily City and Pacifica. They're on the San Francisco County border, and they're within a county that is among the wealthiest counties in the state. So they had a real problem. They had a very difficult time attracting teachers, new teachers, to the district, primarily because of the cost of housing, which was very difficult. So you either had young people that would have to commute very long distances, or they'd have to find accommodations, sharing houses and rentals with numerous other people. 

Their second problem was when they were able to find those teachers. After they trained them and they'd been in the classroom a while, those teachers would often go to other districts nearby that could pay more. Because even though Jefferson was in a very wealthy district, they weren't as wealthy as the other districts, and they couldn't make the kind of salary adjustments that were necessary. So the district came to us. We'd been the financial advisor for this district for many, many years, and they said, here's what we want to do. We want to build teacher staff rental housing that can be rented to our teachers and our staff members at below the current market rental rate. Can you look at this project and see if it works? 

So we looked at how many units they wanted to build, what's the cost of construction, what the rental rate was going to be. They wanted to charge somewhere around 50%, 55% of the current rents. And we came back to them and said, It doesn't work. It simply doesn't work to finance this. You're not getting enough rent off of this in order to pay back the debt and the operations and everything else. So they said, well, what do we do? What other ideas do you have? I said, well, here's my take. 

School districts have a tendency to want to solve community problems, to want to solve social problems beyond what their real sometimes, what their actual mission is. In this case, however, this is not necessarily your problem. I know it's affecting you, but I see it as really a community problem. It affects this community that your teachers and staff members can't live in the community in which they work. So let's go to the community and let's ask this community of voters if they would support a bond in order to fund the construction of below market teacher staff housing. The board looked at me and they said, can you do that? And I said, I don't know, but we can find out. So we began to work with council. 

We found two things. One, that, yes, there was a path, a legal path in California to have a bond election to fund or assist in the funding of teacher staff housing. And the second thing we found out is that it appeared that it had never been done before in the United States, that they were the first district to actually attempt this. And so my hat has always gone off to this district, an incredibly brave group of board members and administrators that would go forward on this. One time years ago, when I brought an idea to a superintendent that I thought was pretty cutting edge, he said to me, Dale, there's a difference between the cutting edge and the bloody edge. But they stuck with it. 

They passed it in the June 2018 ballot, passed a bond measure to build below market teacher staff housing. They now have 120 plus units up and running. Teachers are in it. They're not having any problem filling their positions. It's incredibly exciting project. That type of financing now has been replicated across the state of California, and I'm getting information that's happening across the country as well. But what we're finding is we're doing it all over the state now. We're doing San Diego, Los Angeles County, Santa Cruz County, Santa Clara County. We're also finding it has applicability in not just for those districts that have high cost of housing, but they have a lack of housing. So, for example, there's a ski community that we're working with. Well, they have very limited housing and it tends to get rented to skiers. And there's no place for the teachers and staff members to live. We're working in rural communities where there simply isn't any housing available. So it has a lot of applicability. There's all sorts of different ways you can put it together. They're very difficult transactions, but once they are up and running, they're very gratifying.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, such a smart idea. I love it. And I also like how you framed it as it's not a school problem, it is a community issue. And that is more important. And I would imagine mobilizes voters a bit more, that they see the larger picture of how schools impact their community, but also vice versa, how the community can support and help their schools as well.

Dale Scott: Yes, I agree.

Tyler Vawser: Well, Dale, thank you so much for sharing your experience. Really appreciate the very practical advice, in particular around dates and language, and also how to engage those advocates. But also think about that middle group, those neutrals as well. So really appreciate your time and thank you so much for joining SchoolCEO.

Dale Scott: You're very welcome. It's been a lot of fun. Thank you.

Tyler Vawser: SchoolCEO magazine publishes original research, interviews and more in our quarterly magazine that's read by more than 15,000 school leaders. If you work in K-12 leadership administration or in communications, we'd love to start mailing the magazine to you. 

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