Referendums on the Rise
Stories of Successful School Tax Elections
Passing a school bond right now—against a backdrop of political tension and economic anxiety—may seem like a Herculean task. But in 2022 alone, 2,146 American school districts ran bond campaigns, and about 75% of them passed. Despite our current climate, schools are still succeeding—and yours can do the same.
Of course, no two districts are exactly alike, so no two bond campaigns will be, either. What works for one campaign may not work for another. But each passed school bond offers us a model for what a strong, thorough campaign can look like. Here, we’re highlighting just three districts that rallied enough support to pass their bonds. Our hope is that you’ll find encouragement in their successes—to keep going, to try out new strategies, and to find success of your own.
Pattonville School District leverages community support.
Missouri’s Pattonville School District is fairly small—about 6,000 students total. “Everybody graduates from one high school, and I think that helps us a lot,” says Kelly Gordon, APR, Pattonville’s chief communications officer. “From an alumni perspective, we all went through the same experience. You might go to a different elementary or middle school, but in the end, you graduate as a Pattonville Pirate.”
Gordon graduated from Pattonville in 2006, and while this is her first year in her current position, she’s worked with the district’s communications department for the last 12 years. She credits the tremendous support the district enjoys in part to that experience that so many people in the community share. “Our community is very, very supportive,” she says. “They want the district to do well, and they want students to do well.” In April 2022, Pattonville successfully leveraged that strong support into the passage of a $111 million no-tax-rate increase bond issue.
Gauge your community support on the front end.
Before Pattonville went out for their 2022 bond, they wanted to make sure it reflected the community’s priorities. After internal feedback from schools on their wants and needs, the Pattonville team proposed a bond that would add classrooms to accommodate growing enrollment, improve security and maintenance, and provide much-needed updates to every school building in the district—all at no additional cost to local taxpayers.
“This was the most expensive bond issue we’d ever gone out for,” Gordon explains. “So we did a lot of research, multiple surveys, and some focus groups to figure out: Do we have the community’s support to pass this? Do people feel like the work that we’re proposing is the right type of work for their community?”
The answer was a resounding “Yes.” After this research, the bond’s predicted pass rate was over 80%. “Having that research and knowing that people are going to be supportive helps,” says Gordon. “If you put all this work into your campaign, but people don’t want it, it doesn’t matter.”
Let your community do the talking.
Having the community’s buy-in from the beginning helped shape the rest of Pattonville’s campaign. For starters, knowing the community was already on their side, they didn’t want to bombard people with too much information.
“We wanted people to have the details they needed to make an informed decision—but since we knew that we had a higher level of support, we didn’t want to over-communicate,” she says. “Sometimes that can annoy people, or make them feel like that communication is a waste of taxpayer dollars.” Plus, too much communication could raise awareness among any opposition, causing more naysayers to vote than would have otherwise.
Thanks to the district’s enthusiastic cadre of advocates, Pattonville didn’t have to do much to make word spread. “For the most part, we generally don’t have to jump in and explain a lot. Our community does it for us,” Gordon says. This doesn’t just save the district work—it’s also more effective. After all, people trust their friends and family more than official communication from the district or the Vote Yes committee. “It sounds a lot better when a parent says, Yes, we do need that new track or that new gym,” she explains.
According to Gordon, this kind of advocacy creates a level of support that transcends shared experiences, reaching people who may not have prior connections to the district. “We have so many people who speak positively about their experience or their child’s experience in the district, and without that, we might not have the same support,” she says. “Knowing that people have had that good experience makes a huge difference.”
Keep engaging your community.
When Election Day arrived, Pattonville’s bond passed with 79.4% support, just as predicted. Now, in the summer of 2023, construction projects are getting underway, and Pattonville is working to keep their community updated.
“A lot of our internal conversations, especially now that it’s summer, have been about the best ways to reach our families,” Gordon says. “We have three elementary schools and a middle school about to start construction on building additions, so we wrote a letter for those principals to send out to their families, letting them know what to expect.” This isn’t just about proving that the district’s making good on its promises; it’s also about simple logistics. “When they come back to school, we might have some construction that could impact entrance into the building,” Gordon explains. “We want to keep people informed about that as well.”
This goes for community members outside school campuses, too. For example, construction may cause the shutdown of a side road near one of the school sites—so Gordon and her team plan to connect with a nearby apartment complex that regularly uses that cut-through to give them a heads-up. “This was a significant investment for the community, so we want people to know that their money is having an impact,” she says. “But we also want to make sure that they’re not inconvenienced—or if they have to be, they know in advance that it’s going to happen.”
For Gordon, it all goes back to the importance of engaging the community—the same community that has supported the district every step of this journey.
Shakopee Public Schools connects their parents.
In 2020, Minnesota’s Shakopee Public Schools anticipated that a significant number of their constituents would turn up to vote in their tax election. Because a previous bond was dropping off, the net tax impact would be minimal—and without the 2020 operating levy, Shakopee would be faced with significant budget cuts. But unfortunately, the levy referendum didn’t pass.
When Dr. Mike Redmond arrived at Shakopee two years earlier, he was the district’s sixth superintendent in 18 months. The first of those six had ended up in federal prison for fraud and embezzlement of school funds. In a period of just four years, the community had seen the district’s unassigned funds balance go from roughly $16 million to nearly zero. Trust in the district was at an all-time low.
But Redmond understood. “That hurt, anger, and resentment was because they love their schools,” he says. “They care deeply about their community, and somebody had robbed them of that and destroyed their trust.” After the 2020 operating levy failed, Redmond made space for the community to ask questions and heal. Then, he and other community leaders went back to the drawing board, developing an ultimately successful strategy for their 2021 levy campaign.
Build trust through clear and consistent messaging.
Shakopee’s first step after the failed campaign was to help their community sort out the facts and voice their concerns. “We went as far as we possibly could to answer every question the community wanted to ask,” Redmond tells us. It was clear that voters would be unwilling to assist the district financially until they understood what had gone wrong in the past. “They still had a lot of pain and anger,” Redmond says, “and I understood that. People wanted to know: How are you going to manage the money now? The district blew it before.”
Soon after the 2020 campaign, the district was asked to make budget cuts—so they did. They wanted to be totally transparent with the community about their finances to help rebuild trust. At the same time, they were honest about the future: Without a new revenue source, budget cuts would not be a one-time thing. That became their campaign message for the upcoming 2021 vote. “Our message was clear: This is a binary choice,” Redmond says. Would the community choose to provide additional operating revenue, or would the district need to make significant budget cuts every two to three years?
Being direct and honest about the district’s financial situation was only half the battle. The other half was ensuring that the messaging surrounding the levy remained clear, consistent, and focused. District leaders made themselves constantly available for questions from community members and from staff. “During a referendum campaign, you’ve got to respond to every email before you turn your computer off at night,” Redmond says. They also involved and engaged their teachers: sharing info at welcome back events, explaining the do’s and don’ts for staff members, and showing them where to access reliable resources.
Don’t underestimate parents and families.
But maybe the most important thing the district did was support the local Vote Yes committee. “We helped them get established and made sure they had access to first-rate resources,” Redmond explains. The committee, started by three volunteer co-chairs, followed a simple but effective strategy: Connect parents who support the school’s bond with other parents in the community.
The way the committee saw it, parents and families have the most to gain from a school bond, so they’d be more willing to act as volunteers. What’s more, parents are best situated to advocate to other parents. Even if their political views are different, they have one very important thing in common: their kids’ education. “They used a spreadsheet from past voter records,” Redmond explains, “and the parents recruited by the three co-chairs actually picked who they’d be responsible for talking to—maybe other parents they knew or who lived by them.”
Before long, nearly all of the district’s parents had been personally encouraged to vote “Yes” by someone they knew and trusted. “And then, all of a sudden, I saw people who weren’t even originally part of the formal organization doing the same kind of advocacy,” Redmond says. “They were posting on social media or discussing the bond at soccer games.” When one parent talked to 10 parents, then each of those parents talked to 10 more, the result was hundreds of new advocates promoting the levy.
And as more and more people felt empowered to advocate on behalf of the district, a wave of positivity washed over the community. “The message was clear, incredibly important, and coming from fellow parents,” Redmond says. After the turmoil of the previous several years, the community united behind their chance to invest in their kids, collectively deciding to put their faith back in the district. “The parents knew they were making a positive impact,” he says. “They would talk about how important the operating levy was—not just for the schools, but for the entire community.”
Their hard work paid off—the referendum passed at an astonishing two-to-one margin. And the families who were so central to that victory felt even more invested in the work of their schools; after all, they’d been a crucial part of the district’s success.
Pleasanton Unified School District tells a story.
When Pleasanton Unified School District in California went out for their 2022 bond, the stakes were high. Their last bond—which had come to a vote in March 2020—had failed in the wake of a mounting global pandemic. In fact, over the previous 25 years, the district had only passed one bond.
When votes started coming in on Election Day, it looked like Pleasanton USD was set to continue its streak of failures. But over the next two weeks, as mail-in ballots were counted, the district pulled up from behind and clinched a victory.
“We had a stomachache for a couple of weeks,” says Superintendent David Haglund, “but I was confident it would end up passing—and it did.” Looking at the voting bloc, only 27% of voters had a child in the district, meaning Pleasanton USD’s success was truly a community effort. So how did they get so many people on board? They told a good story.
Good stories are honest.
Schools are cornerstones of their communities, and as a school leader, it’s natural to want your stakeholders to take pride in their local district. It can be hard to admit when things aren’t exactly going perfectly—but sometimes it’s necessary. “The community here isn’t used to being told they’re not as good as the community down the road,” Haglund explains. “They’re used to thinking of themselves as the better place.” But in reality, Pleasanton USD’s facilities badly needed renovation. “The theater’s back corner was sinking. The basement was flooding,” Haglund tells us. “One of the high school gyms was 50 years old, and the other was 100 years old. They didn’t have heating or air conditioning.”
So the district told the truth about their needs. Not only did Haglund and his team give tours of the campuses, but they also held town hall meetings inside the schools and did virtual walking tours for people who couldn’t visit in person. “I think once people actually started touring the facilities and realizing what was really there, some folks were kind of embarrassed,” he says. “We showed them the rotting beams on the roofs, the cracks in the bricks, the ugly parts. That’s not easy to do, but if you don’t do it, you’ll never convince people of the need.”
Good stories build into a broader legacy.
Throughout the campaign, Haglund and his team found themselves coming back to the idea of building a legacy. “We constructed a lot of our narrative around that idea,” Haglund says. For example, Bill Butler, one of two parents who spearheaded the local advocacy group, is a former basketball coach. For him, leaving a legacy meant improving that 100-year-old gym. “When it’s 37 degrees outside, it’s 38 degrees in the gym,” explains Haglund. “They have jackets on trying to practice basketball, and that made Bill embarrassed. That wasn’t the image of the community that he wanted to raise his kids in. He knew he couldn’t just sit back. That’s the story he tells.”
Haglund goes on to describe other members of the community who have stories similar to Butler’s, who couldn’t help but want to make a difference for future generations of students. “I don’t know that anybody said: Hey, let’s talk about our legacy,” Haglund explains. “It just rose out of conversations with people in the community and stuck. It was just a natural part of the storytelling.”
Good stories appeal to a wide audience.
Since fewer than 30% of Pleasanton USD’s voters had children in the district, their bond campaign had to appeal to everyone—even voters who didn’t feel they had much to gain from a new high school auditorium. “One of the pieces of the narrative that I had to create for the community was that these are not just school facilities,” Haglund tells us. “Every single one of these buildings is accessible to the community when school’s not in session. Plus, good school facilities create better property values, which create great resale values.” The reality is that better school facilities benefit everyone.
Convincing the community of that fact also meant combatting a growing “us versus them” mentality. Parents and families of older students and alumni weren’t immediately seeing the state of the district as their responsibility. There were also members of the community looking for someone to blame. “They were thinking: We did our part. Now, it’s their turn to take care of the schools,” says Haglund. “So the line I came up with is: None of this is my fault, but it’s all my responsibility.” By inviting the whole community to take collective ownership over the district’s shared legacy, Haglund and his team made sure voters would turn up on Election Day—whether they had students in the district or not.
Make sure your story is heard.
Haglund and his team did everything they could to share their message. The district and the advocacy campaign worked together to give presentations throughout the community. “I’d give my talk about need,” Haglund says. “Then, I’d leave the building, and the advocacy campaign chairs would pump everyone up and explain how to volunteer.”
The campaign leaders also recruited folks to write letters to the editor about voting “Yes”—which often prompted the newspapers and magazines to contact the district for more info. Pleasanton USD also hired architects to generate mockups of the proposed projects to help their community visualize their potential future. “In a book, the pictures are part of the story,” Haglund explains. “In some cases, they’re even more important than the narrative.”
As Haglund says, “Storytelling isn’t just about bonds; it’s about the work in general.” It’s this key insight that helped the Pleasanton team garner community support for the 2022 bond. But it wasn’t easy. Passing a bond is hard work, and, according to Haglund, “if you’re going to take on a project that’s hard, then you have to tell a story that will motivate people.”
Marie Kressin is a writer at SchoolCEO and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Subscribe below to stay connected with SchoolCEO!