Early planning is key to North Clackamas' bond success
North Clackamas School District has passed three construction bonds since 1998 with an average yes vote of 60 percent. The key to winning every election on the first try lies in the planning details, district officials say.
In November 2016, 62 percent of the voters approved a $443 million bond measure. That big margin was a validation of the district’s comprehensive, years-long approach to bond elections.
The district knew the November election would present challenges. The presidential election would boost turnout, but the divisiveness around candidates could turn some voters off. The ballot would be long, which would likely boost the undervote. Given that some campaign consultants say November is a less favorable time for a finance campaign than May and the big number – almost half a billion – could scare voters off, some districts might have hesitated.
Instead, the campaign team of district administrators, board members, staff, parents and community supporters stayed focused on the work.
The district’s election efforts start long before Election Day. They know their community, they plan ahead – way ahead – they have a solid public relations program in place, and they only ask for what they know their community will support.
Engaging your community takes time. The district’s unofficial campaign began more than two years before Election Day. Starting with a community-based facility assessment process, the district reviewed capital needs to identify and prioritize potential projects.
The process included regular communications to staff, who are the most credible sources of information about a school district. It also included a complete understanding of the needs, the costs and the project priority status.
“The district needed the time to have a conversation with the community,” said district volunteer and bond consultant Jeanne Magmer. “The most important thing they could do was focus on comprehensive community engagement and communication: Have a good plan and complete it 100 percent.”
Meaningful community input
The public was involved from the beginning through opportunities to serve on committees and to provide input in forums and on questionnaires. Public input was part of the decision-making at each step in shaping the measure. Before voting at the ballot box, community members voted for priority projects during a fall 2015 input process at each school in the district.
“These are public schools that we are asking our community to support,” Superintendent Matt Utterback said. “It makes sense to listen to their priorities.”
A bond measure requires an educational process about why the funds are needed, but it also requires a listening process about why the community might not want to spend those funds. North Clackamas surveyed voters about projects and funding levels, and they stayed within voters’ limits.
“We tested what level of funding the community would support,” said communications specialist Michele Worthington. “If we had asked for a higher amount, we knew there was less chance that we would get it.”
Everyone is an important part of the campaign team
Successful finance measures require support from every corner of the district. All staff, board members and school supporters have a role to play as information experts or school advocates.
Key activities included continuing district informational activities, translated into the district’s four main languages; communicating regularly with staff and parents; providing factual information about the district and facility needs to the advocacy campaign; and developing a proposal that the board would support unanimously.
The campaign expanded job duties but required the district to continue its regular two-way communications program that focused on sharing pride points and listening to feedback.
- Marcia Latta