Phoenix-Talent School District had not had a bond election in decades and no one on the bond committee had worked on one before, said Dawn Watson, the campaign chair.
“We did a lot of things wrong,” said Watson, who is also a school board member. “But we’ve learned, and next time it will be easier.”
Watson went to meetings about bond campaigns, and one of the big lessons she learned: Don’t poke the bear.
“For every decision we made, we asked, ‘Was this going to make people vote no?’” she said. “We were very cautious and wanted to keep the voters in mind and make sure they were getting the best use out of their money.”
Phoenix-Talent is a school district of about 2,700 students located along Interstate 5 just south of Medford.
The strategy for the November 2017 vote was to find and motivate the supporters to vote, Watson said. Bond supporters shared information about how district funds were used, how the facility needs were identified and what they were asking for in the bond proposal.
“If you look at the whole process, it was a 2½- to 3-year process,” said Superintendent Brent Barry. The previous superintendent invested in a long-range facility plan, now a requirement to qualify for Oregon School Capital Improvement Match grants. The plan helped the district prioritize the projects and demonstrated to the community that the district understood the need to ask only for an amount the community could support.
“We went through all the projects in the plan,” he said. “We eliminated deferred maintenance that we didn’t want to pass onto voters; that’s our responsibility. We narrowed our focus to safety, security, future growth and energy efficiency. That was a message we were hearing from the community.”
The added advantage of starting with a facility process before a bond campaign is developing active supporters who helped identify the projects.
“Community members, parents and staff were involved from the get-go,” said Barry. “That turned into the bond planning steering committee and then the bond committee.”
The school board also served as role models for volunteers and supporters, with three members taking active campaign roles.
“What they did was trust people who do this to help them,” said campaign consultant Greg Lemhouse of John Watt Associates. “They listened, and they worked hard.”
Lesson 1: Educate
“One piece of advice would be to educate the community on how bonds work, what we can fund and exactly why it’s essential to do bonds,” Barry said.
The district publishes a monthly post-bond newsletter.
“We should have started it sooner,” Watson said. “The public does not know what you think they know.”
Lesson 2: Stick to the facts
Misinformation about the campaign was circulated on social media and in the local newspaper, which generated an opposition effort. Although the paper issued a correction online, the information still left an impression. Negativity on social media snowballed after the first erroneous news reports. Opposition lawn signs, negative Facebook comments and memes started to circulate.
Bond supporters’ responses set a tone that was reasonable and built credibility. They were disciplined in responding to all inaccurate comments politely, factually and immediately.
“You can’t get in a social media hole,” Lemhouse said. “When you see the comments, you think everyone is mad. In reality, if you look at what is said and who is saying it, it tends to be a small group of mostly the same people. If the information is false, correct it. It’s important to know about it but not overreact to it.”
Lesson 3: Be strategic
“It was a very surgical campaign,” Lemhouse said. “One of the things we did, which was a little uncomfortable with some people, was to run a very low-key campaign.”
Because it was the only item on the ballot, the campaign worked on activating yes votes while trying not to stir up the anti-tax sentiments in the community. They held off on publishing letters to the editor and endorsements until the very end. They timed endorsements to arrive when ballots were mailed, and they asked each letter writer to focus on one aspect of the campaign, such as career and technical education, infrastructure needs, safety and security improvements, etc.
The campaign sought help from teachers and principals, whose roles were respected in the community. The campaign also conducted phone banks to reach more people. A large retirement home in the district didn’t allow canvassing, but residents there are among the most likely voters. They were contacted in the first phone bank.
Campaign funds were used for only one argument in support of the measure, but it was signed by many influential community members: the mayor, all school board members, business owners and retired staff members. The campaign’s only printed piece filled multiple roles as a handout and a possible newspaper insert if needed. Skilled volunteers filled key campaign roles. Printing costs, some phone bank expenses and the consulting fee were the main campaign costs.
The final result was an election with more than 30 percent turnout, much higher than expected, and passage of the district’s $68 million bond.
- Marcia Latta