This week, I was fortunate to host a fantastic webinar: K-12 Financing: Communicating for Success Under Today’s Intense Public Scrutiny. Chief Business and Operations Officer Ahmad Sheikholeslami of Northern California’s Menlo Park City School District told the story of how his district successfully passed a critical financing measure earlier this year after voters rejected two similar proposals last year.
K-12 Financing: Contending with Resource Crunches
Across the country, K-12 districts are financed in a variety of ways. But especially amid the last recession and recovery, it is common that many are contending with resource crunches. They often find themselves relying more heavily on existing revenue sources and seeking alternative ones. Thus, many now find themselves turning to their local communities to approve funding measures such as parcel tax increases or bond measures.
The reality is that no K-12 school district funding proposal fails or succeeds on its own. And passing a school funding proposal is not always as straightforward as it once was. Votes that were routine a decade ago now require district administrators to contend with misinformation that can spread via social media, unwillingness to attend in-person meetings, and skepticism of public institutions.
It may seem obvious – especially following a failed funding measure – but strategic, proactive communication is a key factor to success.
(Not So) Evergreen Funding Measures
This brings me to Northern California’s Menlo Park City School District (MPCSD). Comprised of five schools educating kindergarten through eighth-grade students, MPCSD is 90% “community-funded.” Their funding sources include the Menlo Park-Atherton Education Foundation, the district’s Parent Teacher Organization (PTO), and property and parcel taxes.
MPCSD was used to passing a few main parcel taxes, considering them “evergreen.” As Ahmad explained during the webinar, MPCSD “had to rely on requesting additional funding from the community through parcel taxes. And we’ve done that in the past to insulate ourselves from some of the ups and downs of the state economy, but also to provide the level of education that meets the expectations of our community… .”
When the State of California reduced its funding to school districts during the recession, many of their budgets took hits year after year. MPCSD was no exception, facing cuts even as its student enrollment was rising.
In 2016, as its 7-year parcel tax was about to expire, MPCSD knew its state funding would not be restored due to changes in state funding policy. “We also looked at future cost increases and other things that were going on internally. We needed to extend the existing parcel tax, but also look at being to deal with future growth in enrollment,” Ahmad explained. So the district proposed two proposed parcel tax increases to address those challenges.
They tax increases presented an unexpected challenge to the district.
In trying to pass the proposed tax increases, the district undertook the same strategies it had always employed in its campaigns: hosting in-person meetings and presenting its financials as PDFs. For the first time, an opposition group emerged. And as misinformation and misunderstanding spread throughout the community, the measures failed.
Making a Stronger Case for Funding
The district needed a new strategy. It had to make a stronger case for the funding.
Ahmad outlined the three major approaches MPCSD used:
- Improve the Mode of Communication: “What we liked about [the OpenGov platform] is that in an elegant and simple manner, it took our own data and presented it in a way so that people could – at a high level, at a mid-level, or at a detailed level – drill into the data. And that was really important for us: To make sure our modes of communication and our data were out there so we weren’t really arguing over the facts, but we were discussing the merits.”
- Debate the Merits, Not the Facts: “We started to move the discussion away from, ‘Well is that financial data reliable? Are they hiding anything? They’re not telling us where the increased costs are coming from.’ to ‘These are the costs. These are the projections. These are the financial issues the district is facing. Now, do we want to provide it the level of funding to be able to meet the educational needs this community wants?’”
Engage Parents as Champions: “We tapped into our parents as champions by having a lot of community meetings, getting a lot of the issues and questions known in advance, creating a very detailed FAQ…. We had parents who volunteered to monitor social networks and posted the information on both local social networks like Nextdoor and on Facebook. We really got the parents engaged, and one of the nice things is that the parents understood the information because we’d laid it out.”
In March 2017, MPCSD achieved 79% approval of its parcel tax measure after using these approaches to improve its public engagement. The team was proactive with their community outreach and engagement, successfully merging technology solutions like OpenGov and social media with traditional in-person meetings. They made their case, successfully demonstrating the district’s needs and placing the proposal in greater context.
Furthermore, Ahmad said the team realized the need for stronger communication going forward. “We also understand that this discussion is going to be ongoing…. So we believe having a platform that people understand and can readily access is going to be really important for our ongoing communication over time so that people feel well connected and that their finances are being managed well.”
Click here to watch a recording of the 30-minute webinar.
Autumn Carter leads Government Affairs at OpenGov.