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Fayetteville Public Schools — “Project Millage 2010”

Project: 2010 School Millage Election

Purpose

To convince Fayetteville Voters to support a 2.75 mil increase in property taxes to fund the completion of the Fayetteville High School transformation, in the face of defeat at the polls in 2009. 

Summary

On September 15, 2009, Fayetteville voters overwhelmingly defeated a proposed 4.9 millage increase to finance the new construction of a Fayetteville High School campus by the margin of 63% to 37%. This was a stunning setback for the Fayetteville Public Schools, since the election was the culmination of three years of public discussion, concluding with a design charette to create the public’s vision of the new school design.  

Superintendent Vicki Thomas, who had just assumed her new duties months prior to the 2009 election, noted in her post-election comments that “the need for a new high school did not vanish with this election defeat.” She promised that the district would find a way to finance a new campus for Fayetteville High School, to create the facility our students and community deserve.

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Ultimately, the only choice was to start over, scale back the plans, redesign a more affordable facility, and restructure financing strategies to use short-term, near zero interest bonds that had become possible through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Looking to remedy the most obsolete and inadequate portions of the high school in priority order, the School Board decided to develop options for phasing construction around the existing campus. Using near zero-interest bonds and cutting its operational budget, the district was able to design and fund some facilities improvements: new academic spaces, a performing arts center, athletic spaces, and a student commons area.

The district took this step without knowing how or when they would be able to complete the full vision for Fayetteville High School. In just a few short months after that decision, in June of 2010, the landscape changed considerably, with the availability of more zero-interest bonds that created a compelling financing strategy for the completion of Fayetteville High School’s transformation, one which would hopefully be much more palatable to the public and deserving of their consideration at the polls in September of 2010.

The challenge was how to consider the public’s feedback from the prior year’s defeat and look for a communication strategy that would win in 2010.

Research

Survey: A survey card was mailed to each of the more than 10,000 voters who cast ballots in the September 15, 2009 election, and over 50% of them responded. The voters were asked if they voted for or against the millage and what were the primary reasons for their vote. The data was compiled and shared with the School Board, local media, and placed on the website for additional feedback. This survey set the tone for the new superintendent’s engagement with the public moving forward.

Research into Small Learning Communities: One group of voters who emerged as a disenfranchised group were some of the district’s secondary school teachers who felt they had not been adequately consulted during the community design and planning of the 2009 proposed project. The school was to be designed around “Small Learning Communities,” but the teachers had not yet defined how those would be formed so there was considerable angst among that community. A new high school principal came on board for the 2009-2010 school year and immediately began working with teacher leaders and teams on the academic challenges of creating this new campus model. Involving the teachers under new leadership was a strategic and positive move so that when design work began on the new high school plan, they felt their ideas were being heard.

Analysis

After a thorough analysis of voter records from the 2009 election, it was clear that an overwhelming majority of our staff members and parents who were registered to vote in the election chose not to do so. Looking at the ages of those who voted, it was evident that the senior community comprised the majority of voters. Contrary to the predictions of the campaign’s private consulting firm, the traditional broad-brush methods used for “get out the vote” (aimed at people who typically voted in special elections) only served to stir up the naysayers.

Analysis of the survey results revealed some very strong trends. The primary reasons given for voting against the measure were the overall cost of the project (some referred to it as the “Taj Mahal”), impact on voters’ property taxes, and the weakness of the economy.

Respondents also said they did not have a high level of confidence in the board of education, though they did have confidence in the new superintendent. Additional conversations with patrons revealed that lack of confidence in the board was a result of the high level of transparency in the three-year process, where every discussion and change in plans took place in public view, giving the impression that the school board “couldn’t make up its mind.”

Planning

By late June of 2010 it was clear that a traditional school millage election campaign would not succeed. The decision was made to divide the campaign into two efforts with specific and distinctly difference target audiences:

  • Vested voters: registered voters whose children will directly benefit from the FHS solution at some in their education or who are district employees;

  • Non-vested voters: everyone else.

Essentially, the campaign was divided into two operations: education and persuasion. The FPS administration undertook the responsibility for all educational efforts, while the citizen committee coordinated the persuasion campaign.

The Communications Team developed the campaign “Bible,” which included the three core reasons why the school board was seeking the millage increase: 

  1. One-time only access to zero-interest Federal bonds,
  2. Increased educational opportunities for our students, and
  3. Completing the public’s vision for a transformed Fayetteville High School.

Implementation

Working with John Fuller and Penny Ramsey of the DLR architectural group, the Communications Team developed a strategic communications plan that specifically targeted district parents and staff members.

Evaluation

On September 21, 2010, Fayetteville voters approved a 2.75 mil increase by a margin of 55% to 45%.

Contact: Alan Wilbourn, public information officer, alan.wilbourn@fayar.net