Families & the Community

Parents Add Heft to Bond, Tax-Measure Campaigns

By Nora Fleming — July 30, 2013 7 min read
Tamara Hanson, principal of John Eager Howard Elementary School, looks in on a class in session in Baltimore last April. John Howard is one of the first schools in Baltimore City slated for improvement under the district’s new bond project, which will touch all schools in the 84,700-student district within 10-15 years.

Sitting in a cafeteria at Pimlico Elementary/Middle School last fall, parents were asked to imagine what their children’s school would look like with an influx of money under a proposed $2.4 billion bond project to renovate and upgrade facilities in the Baltimore district.

Parents called for “basic standards”: working air conditioning, drinkable water in fountains, and windows that open, said Sherrell Savage, a mother of three students, who helped rally parental support credited for providing the crucial momentum needed to get the measure approved by state lawmakers in this year’s legislative session. “Our parents couldn’t even dream about 21st-century schools because they were still dealing with 20th-century schools that weren’t operating properly,” she said.

To help push the measure over the top, Baltimore parents had to prod both their community and legislators from across the state to approve and pay for the project, which will rely on a combination of state, city, and district resources to build new schools, shut down old ones, and provide up-to-date facilities for the 84,700-student district.

Though the specifics may differ from community to community, parents throughout the country are increasingly becoming advocates for bond and tax measures needed to fill budget holes and better the quality of schools.

Their outreach often goes beyond knocking on doors, posting on Facebook, and running ads on local TV stations: In Baltimore, for example, the nearly three-year campaign included a 3,000-person rally and weekly parent bus rides to lobby state legislators in Annapolis, the capital.

According to Michael Griffith, the senior policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, parents are vital in pushing local voters to pass both bond measures, which typically pay for lengthy infrastructure projects, and tax or levy measures, which pay for district operating expenses.

“While in most school districts these measures have to go through the school board or the district’s fiscal agent to be put before the community, it is the parents that have to rally to support the measure,” Mr. Griffith said. “Whether it be organizing a campaign or voting for the measure, parent involvement is crucial to getting these measures passed.”

Mastering Complexities

An effective campaign can also require a high level of sophistication from parents when it comes to details and legalities surrounding the proposals. The rules and regulations governing bonds and tax levies can differ substantially by state, and even within states. Some states have caps on tax rates for taxpayers, limits on how much money can be raised for operating expenses, rules on when measures can be placed on local ballots, and a statistical threshold for voter approval, he said.

In Kansas, for example, caps on how much districts can raise and spend on operating expenses may have encouraged a growth in bond measures—which have fewer restrictions—as a means for parents to bring more money into local schools, said Mark Tallman, an associate executive director at the Kansas Association of School Boards. However, the trend has generated concerns about equity, since wealthier districts can leverage more funding given their higher property-tax bases.

Washington state has responded to that concern by providing additional “levy equalization assistance” to districts where property values are lower than the state average. Three years ago, 220 districts received $261 million in “matching” funds for tax-levy measures.

Students work in a classroom at John Eager Howard Elementary School in Baltimore.

States’ rules, as well as their circumstances, have also influenced the number of measures pushed and passed by parents. Changes more than a decade ago to the way Minnesota finances public education meant significant cuts to school districts that communities have tried to buffer by passing levy measures, said Mary Cecconi, the executive director of Parents United, a state advocacy group based in St. Paul that has helped parents get tax measures passed for districts.

“Minnesota has spawned a cottage industry around local levy campaigns: If you’re not running a levy campaign here, you’re planning on running one the next year,” said Ms. Cecconi, who estimates that more than 90 percent of the state’s districts have at least one levy in place. “The psyche of the taxpayer is that districts keep going out for more and more money; most everyone in Minnesota is now suffering from levy fatigue.”

In the past decade-plus, parents there have also developed finely tuned and pricey campaign strategies that can cost $125,000 or even more, she added.

Although the measures can net upwards of $700 in additional funds per student per year in Minnesota, districts frequently use them to patch budget holes, rather than provide additions or improvements. Even with a good campaign, the use of the money can make it challenging to get voters to pass measures and to renew them, as is required every 10 years.

Fiscal Pressures

According to Jared Boigon, a partner with TBWB Strategies, a San Francisco-based political-consulting firm that focuses on public-finance measures, the state cuts that many districts have faced in recent years have made it much harder to fulfill the campaign promises for programs and new facilities when the money is needed to cover basic school needs. Strategic campaigning—such as showing how modern buildings could save money in energy costs over time—are essential in helping the measures pass, he said.

The failure to pass a levy can often make the budget holes grow bigger. In Minnesota’s Osseo Area school system, last year’s levy measure lost by 124 votes (out of 69,000 cast), resulting in $3 million in cuts for the 20,000-student district, said parent and campaign leader Mary Ellen DeBois. She and other parents are already in the midst of ramping up the campaign strategy for another levy, on the ballot this fall; projections show its failure would bring another $8 million in cuts within two years.

“The most difficult part of the campaign is building an immense number of relationships across a diverse community, one conversation at a time,” Ms. DeBois said. “Our message to our volunteers is: We don’t need people to take on huge tasks, we need many people to take on small pieces of the puzzle. We know we don’t have the time or the resources to change everyone’s mind [to support the levy].”

Districts tend to take varied approaches to campaign strategies and style, said W. Kyle Ingle, an associate professor of educational administration at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, who has researched tax-measure campaigns. In general, campaigns that more readily involve the community and disseminate varied and targeted messages to different groups tend to be more successful at the polls, he said.

Restrictions governing measures and pushback from naysayers have inspired progressive ideas in many communities, like those in Minnesota, in how to craft campaigns, and in others, how to pay for the bond and tax measures themselves.

Analysts determined the level of repairs needed to put all Baltimore schools in adequate condition would cost at least $2.4 billion, an amount that would be nearly impossible for the district to borrow and pay off alone with the city’s limited property-tax base. At the urging of parents, the community at large, and advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Baltimore Education Coalition, the state, city, and district agreed to share responsibility for paying off a portion of the bond each year, supported by the state legislation approved this past spring.

Other places have also been creative. Board members in Greenville, S.C., voted to create a nonprofit organization, governed by former school board members, that borrowed $1 billion to build nearly 80 new schools within five years—impossible for the district to do given state laws and the local voter climate.

Level of Support

Since tax and bond measures differ considerably among districts and states, common features of successful measures are hard to discern, said Alex Bowers, an associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Mr. Bowers has found, however, that one omnibus bond financing several projects, rather than smaller bonds broken down to pay for specific projects like a new track or library, tend to do better at the polls. In addition, repackaging and refloating bond measures that have failed usually doesn’t produce a different result.

Still, he said, the overall success of bond measures largely depends on community support for local schools, or the support parents and the district are able to drum up—components that are hard to measure statistically.

While the campaign in Baltimore was successful, the community’s efforts are far from over for the project, which will take 10 to 15 years to complete and require additional funding mechanisms to support it.

Local advocacy groups and parent leaders like Ms. Savage, a member of the education coalition, hope that parent involvement continues past the campaign stage to implementation of the project itself. Some parents already went back to the drawing board this summer to help hash out the specifics and timetable for the first set of schools in line to be built, renovated, or closed.

“Parents are often relegated to the back seat, but this time,” Ms. Savage said, “parents have recognized that they have the power to have their voices heard and move things to change in the schools our children attend and in our city.”

Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2013 edition of Education Week as Parents Provide Muscle as Bond, Tax Measures Scrap to Win Approval

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