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The Menlo Park City School District is a community working together to inspire high academic achievement among all students, serve their needs, challenge their minds, and enrich their lives, laying a foundation for success and participation in our democratic society and as citizens of the world.
Faced with rising enrollment, increasing pension costs, and sunsetting an existing parcel tax, the Menlo Park City School District saw two parcel tax measures narrowly fail due to misunderstanding and a weak context.
Menlo Schools leveraged OpenGov’s Citizen Engagement solution to provide citizens and the media with an accurate, easy-to-use place for information.
After two defeated proposals, Menlo Park City School District used the OpenGov Smart Government Cloud™ to secure resounding voter approval for its education funding proposals.
The School District provided on-demand access to interactive visualizations to demonstrate its financial need and how it planned to allocate resources.
Proactively providing accurate financial information through OpenGov helped correct misinformation spread through online blogs.
Since the 2016 national election, pundits have spent hours debating how social media impacted the results. From disseminating fake news articles to spreading misinformation in user posts, social media made it harder than ever for voters to obtain accurate information. This is an important national conversation.
However, pundits miss another critical part of the social media conversation: the effects of rumors and misinformation also greatly impact schools and local governments. Faced with rising enrollment, increasing pension costs, and sun-setting an existing parcel tax, the Menlo Park City School District saw two parcel tax measures narrowly fail due to misunderstanding and a weak context. Fortunately, the district rebounded from those ballot measure defeats to overwhelmingly pass its proposal by leveraging technology to provide citizens and the media with an accurate, easy-to-use place for information.
Menlo Park’s residents voted on two parcel tax measures in May 2016. The first was a renewal of an existing tax; the second was to help the district address a projected increase in school enrollment. Both measures sought to fund initiatives critical to student success such as preserving class sizes, enrichment programs, professional development, and supporting teacher recruitment.
Ahmad Sheikholeslami, the district’s Chief Business and Operations Officer, explained how the district prepared for the vote. “We did what we normally do during a parcel tax ballot,” he said. “We tried to get information to the public by putting a lot online in PDFs.”
However, these traditional efforts proved ineffective in today’s social media age.
Sheikholeslami believes the Menlo Park City School District missed some key trends. First, as citizens increasingly expect the ability to find things on their own, there was no way for citizens to gain a contextual narrative around the data unless they attended a board meeting. Second, the district was not prepared to counter the spread of misinformation on social media and online blogs.
In short, the district had not accounted for how the world changed since the previous parcel measure passed in 2010. Although both measures earned a majority of voters, online misinformation empowered a vocal minority of residents to oppose the tax, preventing the district from obtaining the two-thirds approval necessary for passage.
“After citizens rejected the parcel tax, we began rethinking how we engage with our residents,” Sheikholeslami said. “It was clear the status quo wouldn’t work if we wanted to maintain support for revenue streams critical to serving students.
The district turned to OpenGov to give residents a place for accurate information. Sheikholeslami and his team uploaded multiple years of financial data into the OpenGov platform, along with annotations and the district’s critical narrative context. This provided citizens with on-demand access to interactive information that they could explore and drill down into on their own. The accompanying narrative supported their ability to form their own conclusions.
When combined with a new, detailed website and proactive FAQ page, OpenGov gave the district and the parents a powerful tool to convey accurate information and rebut rumors. Even the tax’s opponents appreciated the district’s increase in transparency.
In March 2017, the funding measure passed with 79 percent approval of the parcel tax. Sheikholeslami attributes this overwhelming success to the improved public engagement that effectively demonstrated the district’s needs and placed the proposal in greater context.
“In 2016, the story got away from us,” Sheikholeslami noted. “This time, we looked at how to better tell our story through an interactive platform that made our information readily-accessible and easily understood. OpenGov presented our data in an elegant and simple way. This made the facts clear and inarguable, so people could instead debate the merits.”
Sheikholeslami is now broadening the use of the OpenGov platform. Beyond citizen engagement, the district is using OpenGov to better inform the board, departments, schools, and other internal stakeholders. As the district approaches budgeting and strategic planning, OpenGov’s ability to display multiple years’ of information, from high-level to line-item details, increases organization-wide insights and enhances by facilitating data-based decision-making.
“This platform is going to be really important for ongoing communication,” Sheiholeslami said. “Having a platform that people understand and can readily access will help all stakeholders feel well-connected, and as issues arise, people can have confidence in the facts.”
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