The nation’s toughest election campaign often is run by amateurs.
That’s what political experts say about school construction measures, such as those in Idaho and Washington, that require more than a simple majority of votes to pass.
The supermajority obstacle is made more forbidding by a growing anti-tax movement, a shrinking percentage of voters with young children and a distrust of government that spills over into the school administration office.
“If we required elected officials to get two-thirds of the vote, there would be relatively few elected,” says political consultant Larry Tramutola.
Which is not to say bond campaigns are hopeless.
Roughly one-third of them are approved in Idaho and Washington. The trick, say campaign veterans, is to run a politically savvy campaign right before the election - and maintain good relations with the public all year long.
“A lot of the time, people vote ‘no’ for lack of understanding,” says Post Falls school Superintendent Richard Harris.
His fast-growing district, along with the neighboring Lakeland School District, will hold the region’s next school bond elections on Oct. 8. Each will try what it’s failed to do before: get approval for new high schools.
Tramutola’s Oakland, Calif., firm has won 32 of the 34 bond elections it’s been hired to run. His fees are paid by private donations. State laws prohibit school districts from spending tax money on campaigns.
School supporters usually can’t afford that kind of help. But they’re increasingly looking for expert advice and full-time campaign coordinators.
Tramutola hasn’t worked in the Inland Northwest, but if he did, his advice to campaigners would include:
Target the yes votes. Waste little time trying to persuade determined opponents.
Have a definite plan. Explain it in detail. Avoid proposing anything that looks like a frill, such as the arts auditorium or sports arena.
If you’re an administrator - and thus bound by law not to campaign - don’t be shy about giving out information. The conditions at many schools are so bad that they’ll speak for themselves.
Remember that the people who normally vote in school bond elections often don’t have children in the schools.
“They might not have visited schools in years and years, and don’t know about the electrical capacity being inadequate or that plumbing systems have deteriorated.”
Seventy percent of homes in the United States don’t have school-age children, according to Gay Campbell. She’s co-author of a guidebook for school-bond campaigners called “Win at the Polls.”
Three decades ago, 70 percent of the homes did have kids in school, says Campbell, public relations director for the Everett, Wash., school district.
Targeting “yes” votes is the smart approach when school supporters have little time to change people’s minds, Campbell says.
“But the best strategy is year-round communication - being open, honest, having the community feel that the schools are accountable and responsive all year long.”
Roger Valdez, a lobbyist for Washington school administrators, agrees.
“Identify the things that are nagging people about the schools in their community, and do something about it,” he advises. “If you do that, you can pass the bonds as a byproduct.”
In Coeur d’Alene, the school district is asking 300 residents what they like, dislike and want from the schools.
The survey is being done when there is no school bond scheduled so people won’t think the district was just out for votes, says planning committee co-chairman Mic Armon. But passing bond levies is a specialty of the two Ohio professors who advised the district on how to gather public opinion.
Education researcher Glenn Graham and marketing pro Gordon Wise urge school districts to look at voters as customers and consider their “needs, desires, values and satisfactions.”
Their collaboration began when Wise lived in a school district that failed four times to pass a bond levy for a new high school. Through discussion groups and surveys, they found that the earlier campaign emphasis on the needs of children was all wrong.
“The issues were economics. So we told them, ‘You’ll save money by building the school now rather than waiting until later.’ And, ‘If you build schools, industry will move in’; we found examples of some that had moved out because of the schools,” says Graham.
They got 68 percent of the vote. They only needed a simple majority.
Before visiting Coeur d’Alene, Graham had never heard of a two-thirds supermajority.
“I just can’t imagine anybody trying to get that many votes today,” he says.
In Post Falls, the school board feels it has no choice but to try.
Its schools were overflowing last year, and district enrollment grew 4.5 percent over the summer.
Post Falls will ask voters again to approve a new high school next month, the same day neighboring Lakeland school holds a second vote to do the same thing.
With each election, the volunteer campaign effort in Post Falls gets more sophisticated, says campaign co-chair Linda Holehan. This time around, it hired longtime volunteer Kathy Lewis - a well-connected bank manager who’s between jobs - to coordinate the effort.
One place Post Falls looked for campaign advice was across the state line, to the Spokane Valley.
Central Valley had lost several elections in a row. Then, last February, the district got 74.5 percent voter approval for a $23 million construction bond, plus 79.3 percent for a separate operations levy. Field marshals for that victory were retired Central Valley administrators Chuck Hafner, Bob Jayne and John Frucci.
“We worked three months, basically full time,” recalls Frucci.
“One of our main concerns was that the same message went out each time. Everything that went out had to come before the three of us. We proofed every letter and said, ‘This is consistent.”’
They mailed 40,000 letters, tailored to different audiences. They had subcommittees to reach different parts of the community. The Post Falls campaign copied that approach.
“There were a lot of avenues we hadn’t considered before,” Holehan says. “The biggest one was day care.”
Day-care businesses are a way to reach parents whose children aren’t yet in school. So letters went out to those operators, who have proven supportive, Holehan says.
To anti-tax activist Dee Lawless of Post Falls, such tactics are a matter of “pushing and pushing until they wear people down.”
To Holehan, they’re doing what needs to be done. She doesn’t want a repeat of last spring’s election, when the same bond proposal lost despite getting 62.6 percent approval.
“We lost in March by less than 200 votes.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Supermajorities and bond defeats Color Photo