While COVID-19 has left many schools districts and other public entities uncertain about their prospects of success in passing tax-related referenda, comprehensive public engagement programs—coupled with strong citizen-led campaigns—are delivering very positive results.
This past winter, many of Beyond Your Base’s clients were moving full steam ahead with plans to seek voter approval of additional funding. This included school districts hoping to address their highest priority capital facility and operating needs. Then COVID-19 hit.
For four of our school district clients, the decision was made to put the brakes on pursuing a referendum in 2020. Given the impacts of the pandemic, both known and unknown, attempting to garner strong voter support for a new property tax seemed liked an insurmountable task.
On the other hand, three of our school district clients decided to move forward with a referendum despite the pandemic. The decision-making process was unique for each client, as were the challenges that each citizen-led campaign committee faced leading up to Election Day.
Glenview School District 34, IL $119 Million Bond Referendum (March 2020 Election)
In the case of Glenview School District 34 in Illinois, the board of education had decided in December 2019 to move forward with placing a $119 million referendum on the March 17, 2020 ballot. This decision was made after extensive planning and community engagement efforts had been completed. Little did the board and district staff know that a pandemic was barreling their way. In hindsight, not knowing was probably a good thing, as the District did not waver in the pursuit of the referendum.
Well in advance of Election Day, Beyond Your Base worked closely with the campaign committee in developing a detailed timeline and budget, poll-driven messaging, branding, direct mail, website and other campaign tools. BYB also assisted the campaign in identifying both likely and unlikely voters who were supportive of the referendum, followed by assistance with get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts that included canvassing and phone banking.
Fortunately, by the time the District shifted to remote learning on March 16, advocacy efforts had been completed and a large percentage of the votes had already been cast via early voting.
In the end, the bond referendum passed with 65% support.
Weld County RE-5J School District, CO $149 Million Bond Referendum and $4 Million Mill Levy Override (November 2020 Election)
Unlike our client in Glenview, Illinois, Weld County RE-5J School District in Northern Colorado had more time to think about placing tax-related referenda on the ballot. However, the decision was extremely complicated, even without the added challenges of the pandemic.
In 2019, Weld RE-5J had placed a mill levy override (MLO) proposal on the ballot to address its highest priority operating needs, including fending off neighboring districts from cherry picking its best teachers and staff. On that same ballot, the district sought voter approval of a $139 million bond measure to build a new middle school, renovate the aging high school, provide matching funds required to receive a state grant to help fund the replacement of a woefully outdated elementary school, and address other capital improvements districtwide. Voters rejected both proposals by small margins. In fact, the MLO failed by just three votes.
Given that the District’s operating and capital facility needs remained following the unsuccessful first attempt, the board of education decided to reapply for a state grant. They also retained Beyond Your Base to assist in developing and implementing a pre-referendum program. BYB’s strategy included facilitating a citizen task force to vet funding options, implementing a comprehensive public information program, and conducting public opinion research.
By July 2020, the pandemic had already been in full swing for months. There were also concerns about the struggles faced by the oil and gas industry and its impact on the local economy and the District’s total assessed valuation. Even so, public opinion research conducted by Beyond Your Base indicated support for both the MLO and bond proposal. The research also indicated that many voters, especially those in the town of Johnstown, liked the idea of a new high school. They also supported the efforts to again capture a $9.5 million state grant to help fund the replacement of the 63-year-old elementary school in Johnstown.
After evaluating the survey results, the citizen task force recommended that the District pursue an MLO proposal that was much like the 2019 proposal. The main difference would be the addition of a 10-year sunset. On the other hand, the task force recommended that the original bond proposal be increased to $149 million and include pursuing a new $110 million high school. To address overcrowding at the middle school, the new plan called for converting the existing high school into a middle school, once the new high school was built. The original idea of building a new middle school in the town of Milliken was eliminated from the proposal.
The board of education agreed with the task force’s recommendations and moved forward with placing both the MLO and bond referenda on the ballot. However, to complicate matters, the location of the new high school was not identified prior to the adoption of the ballot question. The location had been narrowed down to two, 80-acre parcels of land—one in Johnstown and the other in neighboring Milliken. The owners of both potential sites agreed to donate the land if selected.
During the campaign, the final location of the high school remained unknown. Soil testing and other important site selection efforts were still being conducted. As such, the high school site—or lack thereof—remained a contentious issue for some voters.
With the District no longer seeking to build a new middle school in Milliken, a project which had been part of the 2019 proposal, there was the potential that all new construction would be focused in Johnstown. This did not sit well with many Milliken voters, which was a serious concern for the District and the campaign.
With about one-third of registered voters residing in Milliken, losing many of these votes would be a problem. And at the same time, many Johnstown voters—which made up about 65% of registered voters—were adamant that the high school remain in their town. In fact, there were rumblings that Johnstown voters would vote against the bond proposal if the District did not identify Johnstown as the location of the new high school.
Given Milliken voters’ concerns about “all the new stuff likely going to Johnstown,” efforts were made to reinforce that critical upgrades planned for both Milliken Elementary School and Milliken Middle School. The board of education also reaffirmed that the existing middle school in Milliken would not be closed for the foreseeable future.
Following a strong campaign that required continually tamping out concerns in both communities, the MLO and bond passed with 54% and 56% support, respectively.
The decision as to where the new high school will be located will be finalized in early 2021.
Aspen School District, CO $95 Million Bond Referendum (November 2020 Election)
A few months before the pandemic hit, a bond proposal had taken shape to address Aspen School District’s highest priority facility needs.
Like other districts, ASD took a pause on its facilities master planning process as it sorted out how best to implement distance learning and finish the school year during the pandemic.
To complicate things further, the District was going through a superintendent search as spring was quickly approaching and the impacts of the pandemic were becoming more real.
In addition to the pandemic and the search for a new superintendent, three other factors needed to be considered by the board of education. First, a City of Aspen sales tax would be sunsetting soon. Revenues from that tax provided more than $1.2 million in funding for the school district each year. Second, the Town of Snowmass Village had a mill levy that would soon expire unless voters renewed the tax. Revenues from that tax also provided important funding to the school district. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, ASD had an outstanding bond issue that was about to be paid off. If the District were to place a bond measure on the ballot that did not exceed $95 million, the financing could be structured such that the current tax rate would not increase.
District staff and board had a lot to think about. Would the pandemic sink any and all funding measures on a November 2020 ballot? Would a $95 million bond proposal negatively impact the chances of Aspen and Snowmass Village successfully renewing their district-focused tax measures, and vice versa? Was it asking too much of a new superintendent to take on both the pandemic and a referendum?
Rather than guessing how voters might react to three referenda on the ballot and the local impacts of the pandemic, ASD retained Beyond Your Base to find out. BYB developed a detailed informational piece to inform district residents about the possible funding proposals and public opinion mail survey to gather public input.
Despite the pandemic, the results of the survey indicated support for all three ballot measures. Survey respondents were most supportive of adding rental housing for teachers and other district employees. With favorable survey results in hand, and the ability to promote a bond proposal that did not require increasing the current bond levy, the board decided to move forward with a $94.3 million referendum. Aspen and Snowmass Village also proceeded with their tax renewal proposals.
During most of the campaign, emotions ran high as the District attempted to meet the needs of both parents and teachers concerning distance versus in-person learning.
In the end, residents of Aspen School District stood in strong support of their public schools. The headline in The Aspen Times on the night of the election read, “Aspen School District gets triple win at the polls starting with a $94 million bond issue.”
The bond, sales tax and mill levy referenda passed with 73%, 79% and 77% support, respectively.
Beyond Your Base (BYB) is a public affairs and pre-referendum consulting group of Wight & Company that develops and implements comprehensive public engagement programs that incorporate voter analytics, public opinion research and strategic communications. BYB’s focus is on engaging taxpayers and other stakeholders to deliver capital improvement projects that are truly community-driven. Paul Hanley can be reached at email@example.com