What to do after your school bond election—however it went
Whether your referendum passed or failed, now's the time to take action.
After months or maybe even years of planning, you’ve finally made it to the end of your school bond election. You’ve had countless meetings with your community, conducted feasibility studies, run surveys, and campaigned your heart out, but it all comes down to this: Will it pass or will it fail? Will you be celebrating a victory, or picking up the pieces and regrouping for another try? And in either case, what do you do next?
No matter the outcome of your election, you have a job to do going forward. If you lost, now is the time to conduct a postmortem of sorts—to learn what went wrong and how to avoid those mistakes in future campaigns. And even if you won, the work isn’t over. To keep the trust and buy-in you’ve earned over the course of your campaign, you need to sustain your positive momentum.
It’s disappointing—if not downright devastating—to see months of work end in a failed bond referendum. But even if your election didn’t go the way you hoped, it’s important not to lose heart. A failure isn’t an opportunity to beat yourself up, but to learn from the experience and prepare your school community to move forward.
Conduct a post-election analysis.
For advice on next steps, we turn to Dr. Don Lifto, an expert on school referendums and the co-author of School Tax Elections: Planning for Success in the New Normal. According to Lifto, one of your top priorities should be conducting a post-election analysis, or PEA.
The PEA “is not a survey,” Lifto explains. “It’s not asking anybody their opinions about anything. It’s a profile comparing the demographics of your whole registered voter base to the demographics of who actually showed up to vote.” Conducting a PEA is a useful exercise no matter the outcome of your election, but it’s particularly necessary in the event of a failure. “After winning, it paints you a demographic picture of how you won,” Lifto says. “But after losing, it provides a roadmap for what needs to change in the demographics of turnout to get a successful outcome next time.”
The process for obtaining voter data varies from state to state, but in general, you can get a voter file for election research from the county or state agency that oversaw your election. (Commercial vendors are also a potentially easier and more cost-effective option; Lifto recommends Washington-based vendor L2.) This file will give you a wealth of demographic information about all the registered voters in your community, including which elections they’ve turned out for in the past.
According to Lifto, as you look at your election results, you always want to see parents and guardians overrepresented. This simply means that if, say, 30% of registered voters are parents, you want parents to make up more than 30% of those who actually voted. After all, voting “Yes” should be a no-brainer for people with children, who stand to directly benefit from improved schools.
This is probably the easiest thing for a school bond campaign to get right—so if parents and guardians are underrepresented, it’s a sign that something’s gone horribly wrong. “Either there was a serious flaw in the planning and/or execution of the campaign or the district’s proposal was significantly out of alignment with the priorities of the parent population,” Lifto writes in School Tax Elections. Before you conduct a future school bond or levy campaign, it will be crucial to consult with your community more extensively—especially families—to make sure your proposal reflects their most pressing concerns.
Even if parents are overrepresented, though, further examination of this population is in order. What percent of all parents or guardians who are registered voters actually showed up to the polls? You want that percentage to be as high as possible—to “maximize the parent vote,” as Lifto puts it.
Isolating your parent data into smaller categories will help you determine how to do this in the future. For example, did some neighborhoods see a stronger parent turnout than others? If so, you might reexamine your campus-by-campus messaging. Was it clear what each neighborhood’s school stood to gain from the bond? Your district’s families are your most natural supporters—so it’s crucial to do everything you can to get them to the ballot box.
Throughout your campaign, you should have identified supporters of the bond—people you were confident would vote “Yes.” Compare that list to the actual Election Day data. What percent of those supporters actually made it to the polls?
Ideally, this group should also be overrepresented in your final results. If they’re not (or even if they are), break down your data even further to determine any patterns, just as you did with the parent population. Lifto recommends “looking at the gender, age, party affiliation, and geographic location of identified supporters.” If only a few of your supportive older adults voted, for example, you might consider coordinating a stronger effort to offer rides to the polls next go-round. Whatever you discover, you’ll have an idea of which specific groups to target and monitor better in your future campaigns.
The timing of your election could also be the determining factor in whether your bond passes or fails. “Too many districts make the assumption that all elections are alike. They are not,” Lifto writes. “Each election has a character that is defined by the types of candidates or issues that appear on the ballot alongside the district’s proposal as well as the year and month of the election.”
According to data from nonpartisan research organization FairVote, registered voter turnout in the U.S. hovers around 60% for presidential elections and 40% for midterm elections. Turnout in local, odd-year elections is generally even lower—usually less than 27%. So which is better for a school tax election? Well, it depends.
“Every state has its own unique laws on when you can run a bond or levy, but when you have options, the general rule is to evaluate the demographics of your community,” says Lifto. “If the majority of your registered voters are progressives or leaning that direction, you want as big a turnout as possible—because progressive voters are more likely to vote ‘Yes’ for a school bond. If the opposite is the case—if the makeup of the school district is very conservative—a smaller turnout is to your advantage.”
Based on your community’s demographics, would you have benefitted from a lower or higher overall turnout in your last election? Adjust the timing of your next vote accordingly.
Never fall out of touch.
Even if your bond didn’t go the way you planned, now is not the time to fall silent; it’s time to rethink and renew your strategies for community engagement. After all, if you’re only communicating with your constituents when you want something from them, you’re unlikely to ever get enough “Yes” votes to move the needle.
So thank your supporters and organizers for their hard work. Keep them updated on what you learn from your post-election analysis and what you plan to do going forward. The more you communicate with your audience, the better chance you’ll have of getting your next school bond passed.
So your referendum passed—congratulations! But a successful vote is just the beginning. Now, it’s time to keep the positive momentum going.
Get started as soon as possible.
Kansas’ Blue Valley Schools has a long history of passing school bond elections, but their last two votes—held in 2020 and 2023—have been some of their most successful ever. “In 2020, our bond passed with nearly 74% support, and this time it was nearly 71%,” says Deputy Superintendent Kyle Hayden. “Quite honestly, that’s almost unheard of.”
Why such incredible success? The Blue Valley team attributes it at least in part to their aggressive bond schedule. “When we passed a bond, many of the people voting for that bond had children in our schools,” explains Dr. Tonya Merrigan, Blue Valley’s superintendent. “We wanted them to be able to see what we were promising them while those kids were still in school.” Projects from the 2020 bond—including three new high school gyms, a high school performing arts space, heightened security measures in all schools, and flexible learning spaces throughout the district—are all wrapping up this summer, just three years after the vote.
The most recent bond, passed just a few months ago, is no different. When we spoke in April, Blue Valley was already in the process of hiring their design and construction management teams, and they hope to have all projects—including a brand-new middle school—completed by the summer of 2026.
Getting started as soon as possible shows your community that you meant what you promised them—and that you want them to reap the benefits of their investment. Seeing quick progress also makes stakeholders more likely to support your district in the future. “When people see results, they’re going to be positive when it comes to the next referendum,” Hayden says.
Make your website a hub for school bond information.
If you’ve dedicated a page on your site to information about the bond campaign, don’t neglect or delete it once the bond passes. Instead, make that page a hub for all future information about your bond.
On Blue Valley’s “Bond 2023” page, you can find detailed information about upcoming projects, broken out by school. Branded PDFs for each campus explain the particular projects for specific schools, as well as those they feed into. This allows families to easily determine exactly how the bond will impact their own children over time. The bond page also offers links to board presentations about the bond, budgetary information, and more. “Being very transparent and making the information readily available—that makes a huge difference,” Hayden says.
But Blue Valley isn’t the only district keeping their school bond info easy to find. California’s Long Beach Unified School District has passed three bonds since 2008, for a total of $4.4 billion. On the district’s bond page, you can view details about completed, in-progress, or scheduled projects at each of Long Beach Unified’s 84 schools—including photos or artist renderings, descriptions, construction start dates, and projected completion dates. You can also view upcoming projects by school year in a construction timeline stretching until 2029-30. With just a few clicks, any community member can easily find what the future holds for their campus.
Creating or maintaining a page like this shouldn’t be too heavy a lift; after all, you likely had most if not all of this information publicly available already as you campaigned for “Yes” votes. The key now is to keep this page active, informative, and up-to-date. The more information you make available to your community throughout the school bond process, the more you’ll build their trust. (For more on building an online presence for your bond campaign, click here.)
Provide frequent updates.
From the moment your vote is official to the ribbon-cutting of your final project, keep your community as up-to-date as possible on your bond schedule. School bond expert Dr. Don Lifto recommends using YouTube or Facebook Live to provide monthly video updates. “Show people digging the basement at the new middle school, a quick Q&A with the architect, maybe some comments from kids about how excited they are about the new gym,” Lifto says. “If you do that twice a month over a couple of years, that’s 48 opportunities to positively influence public opinion.”
Social media isn’t the only way to get the word out about your progress. At Blue Valley, Hayden frequently updates the district’s several board advisory committees at their monthly meetings. “We show them photos of the finished work and remind them of what’s on the horizon,” he explains. “That touches a lot of people. There’s quite a few folks on those committees, and they’re going to talk to their neighbors.” After the fact, those presentations are often linked on Blue Valley’s bond page as well.
The district also highlights bond progress in their quarterly magazine, Blue Valley Today. “That publication doesn’t just go to our families—it goes to our entire community,” says Kaci Brutto, Blue Valley’s director of communications. This ensures that even those without a direct connection to the district stay updated on where their tax dollars are going.
As Brutto points out, it’s also important to update the community on the less tangible aspects of bond progress. “We try to communicate when the bonds go to bid, what those rates came in at, who bought the bonds, all that—to make sure that our community has that knowledge of the fiscal side,” she tells us. “Even if those aren’t the shiny new things to talk about, we want to make sure we share that, because we want to be good stewards of taxpayer money.”
However you update your community, make sure you’re doing it consistently. “Communication is key,” says Merrigan. “Keep the work that you’re doing front and center. You want the community to be as excited as you are—so talk about it all the time, in whatever ways you can.”
Originally published as "Pass/Fail" in the summer 2023 issue of SchoolCEO Magazine.
---Subscribe below to stay connected with SchoolCEO!