What’s the Word? Schools As Salespeople For Referenda

May 4, 2015

School districts may turn to voters to help finance construction or general fund projects during elections.
Credit Phil Roeder / https://www.flickr.com/photos/tabor-roeder/

History shows most of the school referenda that pass, pass in May – they have about a 50-percent success rate in Indiana. This could be because voters don’t want to pay more taxes, but some experts also point to a lack of understanding about what the additional tax money would pay for.

Thirteen Hoosier school districts are asking for 18 separate tax levy increases on the primary ballot – a mix of construction and general fund supplements.

Just like in every election, they’ll appear at the bottom of the ballot, and they’ll all be constructed the same way: a one-sentence paragraph outlining ‘here’s how much money we need, here’s what it’s for, and here’s what it would do to your tax rate.’

"What we’ve learned is that these referenda elections are political campaigns."

That’s Larry DeBoer, a referenda expert and professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University.

"A campaign is a sales pitch," says DeBoer. "You are saying, 'here’s the price, here’s the product.'"

Using his analogy, in the case of a referendum the price would be the tax increase; the product, what the district hopes to fund. The school corporation becomes a salesperson of sorts, and their pitch: one sentence on the ballot.

[RACHEL] "Do you mind if I show you one of the referenda I’m talking about?"

[SPIRO] "Sure! Let me get my glasses!"

I sat down to look at some of language with Rosann Spiro, a marketing professor at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.

We pick out a general fund referendum on the ballot for Pike County School Corporation:

[RACHEL] "And they say specifically, ‘for the purpose of funding costs related to providing education services and meeting the educational needs of the School Corporation.’ I would say that’s pretty… specific, wouldn’t you?"

[SPIRO] "No." 

[RACHEL] "Really??"

[SPIRO] "No."

[RACHEL] "Why not?"

[SPIRO] "Because, ‘other educational needs,’ what does that mean?"

The language meant to specify what Pike County hopes to fund is instead very vague. So are the asks in many of the other referenda this go around – school corporations are asking for money to support things such as  “current programs” and “daily operations.” And it’s confusing many voters.

"In business – and I would think in any kind of selling – you want to be very detailed and very specific. That customer should know exactly what they're going to get."

Unfortunately, Pike County Schools superintendent Suzanne Blake doesn’t have the luxury of space on the ballot to be as specific as she’d like.

"The state funding formula has changed over the years," says Blake. "There’s been a decrease in the amount that we’re receiving, and we just have to find another way to have the revenue to support the services, or we’re going to have to start cutting the services." 

Blake says the issue plaguing her district’s financial situation requires more explanation than she can provide in half a sentence. She’s started hosting public meetings in every community to help voters understand what they’d be paying for.

"We’re trying to get the word out about what the referendum is and why we need it, because above all else, they need to be an informed voter on the topic," says Blake.

In terms of selling the district’s idea, Blake appears to be on the right track, according to Professor Spiro.

"The first thing in all marketing is to understand your target audience," says Spiro. "Go out and talk to a lot of people, and really listen. I wouldn’t craft a message like this unless people understand what's going on. If it doesn’t pass, one of two things happened: either it didn’t match people’s needs, or they didn’t understand it."

Blake won’t speculate about whether she thinks her district’s referendum will pass. If it doesn’t, Pike County has to wait a full year before putting it to a vote again. Meanwhile, the district will continue to operate in the red, or else make other changes to save money, which could include consolidating or even closing some buildings.

Blake says while she understands people’s frustrations and desire for specifics, all they really need to know is this.

"If we continue to make reductions," Blake says, "the kids are going to start to suffer."

And she says they won’t get the education they deserve.