Superintendents agree tailored communication key to bond success

"We want people to take the time to be informed”

Published: March 6 2014 | 3:30 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:12 am in

Mark Schneider wants $10.64 million.

Schneider, the superintendent of the Mid-Prairie Community School District, headquartered in Wellman, has embarked on a public information campaign designed to educate – because Iowa Code prevents school districts from using funds to advocate – residents about the $10.64 million bond referendum on the ballot for an April 1 special election.

If approved, the dollars will go toward facilities construction and upgrades at each of the district’s schools as well as building a new Alternative Learning Center and central administration office.

Schneider’s plans include writing columns for local newspapers, hosting open houses and community presentations and inviting voters to tour the district structures. The Mid-Prairie website has information about the referendum – how the money will be spent and the tax effect on residents – and Schneider is hoping to distribute a mailer to area residents.

Schneider and his Mid-Prairie staff are doing much of what they should, at least according to the Iowa Department of Education. The department’s website features 11 steps for administrators to follow in bond elections.

The sixth entry is about campaigning and advises printing leaflets, brochures and pamphlets as well as placing ads in newspapers.

The Iowa Association of School Boards has a similar page on its website, with a list of components of successful campaigns – “the campaign is a team effort with coordination among the school board, superintendent, staff and school support groups” and “the campaign uses voter information sources and key messages to yes voters.

The association website also mentions the importance of a citizens committee. A four-person steering committee in Mid-Prairie was formed to help with the election.

“We’re trying to gather more people to get the word out, get people to the polls, that sort of thing,” said Tim Heisdorffer, one of the committee’s members, who lives in Kalona.

Heisdorffer said the committee members plan to support the district’s efforts as well as “calling some friends who are like-minded and hoping to get them to get the vote out” — another move the Iowa Department of Education document recommends.

How much is too much?

“Any time you have a bond vote, there’s lots of stories going around,” said Carol Montz, superintendent of the Williamsburg Community School District. “That buzz talk around town, a large percentage of that is not accurate. Some of that’s accurate, but not all of that’s accurate.

"We want people to take the time to be informed.”

In February 2013, 55.1 percent of district voters rejected a $7.9 million bond referendum — which in Iowa needs a 60 percent supermajority to pass — for a new gym.

Supporters tried to combat that “buzz talk.” Community members formed the Raider Pride committee and lobbied the school board for the facility and then spearheaded a campaign to inform the public and get voters to support the bond issue necessary to fund construction of the facility. But those efforts may have backfired.

“The first time we were very vocal, held town hall meetings, we pumped it hard on Facebook. We had a huge website, we put up billboards and signs,” said Brad Schaefer, a parent of two Williamsburg students and member of the Raider Pride group. “We felt like the people in the community knew that we needed (the bond), but some people in the community were offended by that big push. They voted no because it was so in your face, that approach.”

Facebook proved much more successful for the Clear Creek Amana Community School District, in the eyes of Superintendent Tim Kuehl.

“It’s kind of crazy how fast something on there can take off if it catches their interest,” he said of the social-media site. “I think social media is really important. I don’t think it can be the only thing.

"There’s still a large segment of our population that doesn’t use social media, at least not to a large extent.”

On Feb. 4, 78 percent of voters approved a $48 million bond referendum to finance new buildings and additions to existing facilities for the growing district. Unlike Mid-Prairie and Williamsburg, where bond issues would mean tax increases, Clear Creek Amana administrators were able to tell voters that their tax rates should remain flat even with the bond’s passage.

Williamsburg administrators went back to voters one year later. Both the Raider Pride group and Superintendent Carol Montz changed their approaches. The proposal dipped to $6.7 million.

Instead of showcasing what the facility could be, the superintendent said the second campaign became about the need. Schaefer and his peers ceded center stage.

“We just encouraged people to get to those meetings," Schaefer said. "The support was still there. We just reminded people to get to the polls.”

Yet the result was the same. Voters defeated the bond issue on Feb. 4, though the margin narrowed with support growing to 56 percent of people who cast ballots.

“I don’t think anybody questions that this gym is dated and needs an update. I think people are really pretty good about understanding that part of that,” Montz said. “Again, it’s just additional property taxes in this community.”

Montz said Williamsburg school board members will discuss next steps for the gym in April and May. If another bond vote is on the horizon – and Montz’s comment that “I think the board recognizes that our needs for additional space and safety for our patrons aren’t going to go away” indicate that it’s likely – the superintendent said a new campaign would include some changes.

“I think for us our greatest need is to get people in to see the facility and get accurate information," she said.

Schaefer said he’d opt for more focus on satellite and absentee voting opportunities. Those are both things Clear Creek Amana publicized to voters, including hosting a satellite voting opportunity before a home Clear Creek Amana High School basketball game.

Kuehl said emails to district parents helped the cause, as did positive media coverage.

“Early on we had a board member that just explicitly invited media to come to our meeting, our informational session. That was a good thing,” he said. “I hope (the media) found us to be forthcoming with the information and those things, and I think that helped as well.”

Kuehl noted that the district, one the state’s fastest growing in enrollment, is in a unique position because of the attention that garners. But many of its election information efforts could be duplicated.

The long game

The Iowa Association of School Boards advises against starting campaigns too late. For Schneider in Mid-Prairie, the upcoming election is the last step in a lengthy journey.

“To me, a bond issue is really about the trust the district taxpayers and community members have in the school board and the administration,” Schneider said. “The things the school board and the administration do prior to a bond issue are much more important than what’s on the bond issue. To me, this started five years ago.”

Schneider was referring to the various committees involved in evaluating the district’s facilities and creating a long-term facilities plan.

The Solon Community School District is in the midst of that work now, which has included community members serving on committees and inviting them to facilities planning meetings.

Superintendent Sam Miller expects to pose a bond ballot question to voters in September. The dollar amount is unknown at this point, but Miller said building an auditorium at the district’s high school and constructing a new middle school are the top priorities.

The district already has purchased 11 acres of land for the new structure.

Miller said the community is informed about the building plans, but a more targeted campaign is set for the summer in advance of a potential September vote.

“When school would start back up, maybe before then, I could see us giving tours of existing facilities,” he said. “It’s just a matter of educating of our community. … It’s important the community understand why we’re going down this road.”

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