How Community Engagement Helped One Superintendent Win Passage of a $67.5 Million Bond
A guest post by Scot Graden
After voters had rejected two bond measures, Saline Area Schools used online surveys and a virtual listening station to give the community easy access to school leaders. The third measure passed with 60% of the vote.
In 2010, Saline Area Schools, where I serve as superintendent, introduced a bond measure to fund our first infrastructure updates since 2000. Our district is in a relatively affluent, relatively conservative area of the state, 40 miles west of Detroit. Of our 32,000 residents, more than 50 percent don’t have kids in the school system, and in 2010, the Michigan economy was in a different place, so a lot of the conversation in the community was about the budget. We encountered a disconnect with some residents, who asked, “Why a bond?” Our community is relatively small and has only one local news site, so we had no mass media through which we could communicate the importance of the bond to parents and non-parents. The measure failed.
We presented the measure again in 2011, and again it failed. This time, we understood that the voters’ concern wasn’t with the projects we were proposing, but with our district getting its financial house in order. To put it simply, we were operating at a loss.
For the next couple of years, we worked on putting that house in order. We closed one building and sold another. We stopped using one-time money to replenish savings accounts and backfilled our rainy-day fund.
Our central office partnered with Virginia-based K12 Insight to bring the community into the conversation. We used the company’s Engage survey solution to conduct research-backed climate and culture surveys that informed our decision-making and provided feedback about peoples’ perceptions of our district. We also worked with K12 Insight to launch Let’s Talk!, a virtual listening station that enables community members to provide feedback on specific topics right from our website. Once the question or comment comes in, it is immediately routed to the right person in the district for a speedy response.
In 2015, we were ready to present a new bond proposal to the community. We are a BYOD district, so this bond was not asking taxpayers to fund expensive devices for students. The theme we chose was “Safe, Warm, Dry, and Future-Ready.” We wanted to make sure our school entry points were safe, that the heating and cooling systems worked, and that schools in need got new roofs. These were “non-sexy” items, but we felt they were important to the success of our schools. On top of that, our goal was to provide next-generation classrooms. We focused on furniture, space, and technology. We doubled the “ask” from 2011, requesting $67.5 million over three bond sales.
We still had no mass media to connect with the community, so we had to use our “ground game.” We held a series of community meetings, where the conversation was informed by our survey data. Public perception was that our buildings were in pretty good shape—which was true. So we didn’t try to oversell facilities needs. Instead we framed our bond campaign around “protecting our future.” We made sure to tell people that they could ask questions or submit comments through Let’s Talk!—and many of them did.
The feedback we got was specific: One resident submitted detailed questions about our bus purchases. I, in turn, offered detailed responses, and he ended up conducting an analysis of bus providers for us. I just had lunch with him the other day—and this is someone I met because he clicked a button on our website.
On November 3, 2015, the bond measure passed with 60 percent of the vote, the widest pass rate of any tax increase in the state. That success can be credited, in large part, to our commitment to open and transparent communication. By the time voters arrived at the polls, they understood our position, had an opportunity to voice their concerns, and trusted us to spend their money wisely.
Since the bond passed in November 2015 we have started making arrangements for construction.
We are considering estimates and will have plans on the street by March.
We’re also expanding our use of Let’s Talk!. While some educators fear that inviting community feedback will lead to a deluge of complaints, it’s simply not the case. When people understand that you’re listening, it sends a message to the community. We created an environment where people feel comfortable asking questions, and out of that environment came the funding that will help us build the next generation of Saline Area Schools.
Scot Graden is the Superintendent of Saline Area Schools in Michigan.