The anatomy of a referendum: The Oregon and Beloit referendums were voted on in 2012, but the process began long before. Here is a summary of what prompted the referendum discussions and how the proposals progressed in each community.
By Brock Fritz
Billing itself as the gateway to Wisconsin, Beloit has also earned the status as poorest city in the state, and the community has recently taken a proactive role to change its fortunes.
Oregon, meanwhile, appeared content with the way their its are, voting against a referendum that would have modernized many of the district’s facilities.
With the state’s current economic shortcomings, Wisconsin communities—such as Beloit and Oregon—have faced decisions on whether or not to pass educational referendums. This spring, Beloit passed a $70 million referendum that will overhaul many of its existing buildings. Inversely, Oregon saw its $33 million proposal rejected by the voters.
The process behind the planning, voting and execution of a referendum is a long one, and these two communities provide an in-depth look at what goes into each step. A close exploration revealed that the effective components on a proposal that asks taxpayers for money to fund some kind of school project must include a careful strategy of assessing the problem, communicating the need effectively and budgeting frugally.
Assessing the school district
Every referendum begins with an issue that needs improvement.
Old buildings, too large of class sizes and an increased need for safety are all examples of problems that a referendum may attempt to solve.
In order to make changes to a community, one first needs to know where the problems are. Therefore, the first step in the referendum process is examining the community and identifying needs. To do this, school boards have meetings with teachers, community groups and anyone with an investment in education.
A professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Alex Bowers, is one of a small number of people who have studied this topic. Bowers believes that the key to passing a referendum begins with this identification process.
“It all depends on what the community thinks you need,” says Bowers. “Politics is local. It all depends on what the community needs and how the school district connects to the community. Referendums are put together because of a defined needs list and, therefore, they usually succeed in the end.”
The Oregon School Board combined problems it saw with issues that the community brought to the board’s attention to create its needs list. A member of the board, Steve Zach, says a number of parts to the referendum, such as the Jaycee Park renovations and the safety features, were brought up by community members.
“The common perception of all of this coming from the school board was not the case,” says Zach. “The community brought many of these issues to the board and we examined them in the referendum.”
Author of Knowing the Odds: Parameters that Predict Passing or Failing School District Bonds, Bowers found four factors contribute to whether a community will pass its referendum: Bond amount, number of students enrolled, number of times bonds attempted, and district urbanity.
One thing Bowers found was that rural districts have a lesser chance of passing referendums than cities or suburban areas. Cities have a more widespread community of tax payers, and more students benefit from the proposed improvements; these statistical differences are part of the process. The more one knows about the current atmosphere in the community, the easier it will be to develop a proposal.
The problem that arose in Oregon was that the school board and some of the citizens developed deferring needs lists. Citing the decreased growth of class sizes, the Oregon School Board did not see problems with its classroom atmosphere and focused on peripheral improvements, such as physical education and community spaces. The proposal for the $33 million project included a field house, turf soccer field, Eco Center, hands-on science lab, new media center, and a “third space” that would be similar to a student union at the college level.
The majority of citizens believed they were being asked to give money for facilities that were not necessary to educate students.
“The community did not view physical education space as academic space,” says Oregon’s superintendent, Brian Busler. “I do believe physical education is part of academics. We have recently introduced web-based classes and some students are even taking courses at the UW or Madison College. Due to this, we didn’t want to overbuild academically and we felt like these other aspects were the greater issue.”
When the school board and the citizens’ needs lists do not mesh, the process cannot move to the next step of fixing these problems.
Communicating the need
As with any political referendum, once there is a plan, it must be promoted.
One of Bowers’ colleagues in the educational reform field is William Kyle Ingle. An assistant professor at Bowling Green State University, Ingle has focused much of his work on attempting to find trends within the referendum process.
Ingle listed several ways in which school boards go about referendum promotion. The most common is to enlist strong community involvement to build support. This was the case in Beloit, where many citizens were involved in promoting what they believed was the best thing for their city. Beloit referendum supporters and retractors set up websites, blogs, Facebook pages and other media avenues that enabled them to get their message to the masses.
“I contend that if you are going to put these things on the ballot,” says Ingle. “You need to have answers for your community and it is better if it is community members doing the answering rather than school and district officials.”
This school-based approach is called a central office campaign. Under the approach, the superintendent, treasurer, teachers and staff are the proposal’s messengers, according to Ingle. This method involves less direct citizen involvement, but the goal is the same.
“One of our studies that drew from superintendent surveys suggests that having a unanimously supportive board is related to an increased likelihood of passage,” says Ingle. “Communication from the campaign committee and the board, explaining why the levy is needed, what the levy is going for, and what will be lost if it fails, is vitally important.”
This communication proved to be the key for Beloit’s success. Already armed with a well-defined needs list, Beloit’s referendum proponents set up meetings and information sessions to ensure everyone could learn about the situation.
Beloit Superintendent Steve McNeal credited the communication of needs as the main reason they were able to pass the referendum.
“I really believe you have to communicate the need,” says McNeal. “People have to believe the need. There is a trust factor, people have to trust us and what we are trying to do. There is an upswing currently, our test scores are trending up, and people believe in what we are trying to do. When they believe it, it is easier to pass.”
The Greater Beloit Economic Development Corporation was one organization that threw its support behind the school board. Executive director of the organization, Andrew Janke, paralleled McNeal in believing that communication was the key.
“The school district put together a great plan,” says Janke. “They worked to communicate this plan to the people and the voters agreed with it.”
In Oregon, the school board did a number of things to promote the referendum, including mailing information to every resident, creating a website and holding a series of community meetings. The attempts at communication were there, but an inability to sway the majority of voters caused the referendum to be denied.
And then there is the money. The dollars and cents of any municipal desire—and the taxpayers’ feeling about the project—can derail any plan.
“The most important hurdle is to the tax payer,” says Bowers of the University of Texas at San Antonio. “Throughout the U.S. that’s how we fund these bonds. It all comes down to what you are asking for and where you are asking for it.”
The bond amount is clearly important, although the significance of the price depends on a number of factors. The Beloit cost, totaling $70 million, is much greater than the $33 million Oregon proposed, but the background behind these numbers is essential.
The expected property tax increase for citizens was $100 in Oregon and just $90 in Beloit. This reduced impact is due to the retiring of debt from the old high school. Beloit also benefited from an increased number of tax payers and government aid.
Cities like Beloit have a better chance of receiving funding from the government. As an economically struggling city, the Greater Beloit Chamber of Commerce reported an expected 64 percent reimbursement from the state government. The government is more willing to aid Beloit and other challenged areas than a well off community like Oregon. Therefore, compared to Beloit, Oregon tax payers would have been expected to front more of the costs.
“Believe it not, as bad as the economy is, we think that we had the perfect storm,” says McNeal. “We were retiring debt, there are the lowest interest rates in history, and we are the poorest county in the state so we get a lot of help. Those factors, and a need for changes, gave us the ideal situation.”
The Oregon School Board also felt it was the right time to act. Zach says a number of these issues were being discussed in 2008, but the board wanted to wait until the economy improved. They felt the time was right after looking at this year’s finances.
For the Greater Beloit Economic Development Corporation, whose goal is to establish and expand businesses in the area, the hope is that the redeveloped facilities will give Beloit an economic edge by encouraging more people and businesses to enter the community.
“We think it will impact the economy very positively,” says Janke. “We took affirmative action to support this proposal and were delighted to see that it passed. Tax payer costs were so reasonable and the voters were able to understand that our buildings were in need and it was time to invest in them.”
The communication of needs and a lessened tax impact on citizens caused the costs to be overlooked in Beloit. In Oregon, the community did not see the needs as being great enough to warrant the increase in taxes.
Adapting for the future
Referendums are about the next generation and the promotion of the future, and right now Oregon is unsure about where its status lies.
Busler suggests that the referendum will stay on the table in Oregon, but is unsure where the community will go at this point.
“The school board will take a look at it and come up with a new plan,” says Busler. “In the past, I have seen all types of new plans, some are smaller, some are the same, and some are larger. If I had to guess, I would say that because you have more people involved, with more ideas, it would be more expensive the next time around.”
If the proposal is put back on the table, Oregon will have to revisit the assessment stage of the process. The first step is to locate the dissent. It becomes possible to identify the solution by finding out where the referendum went wrong.
“We are just starting to take a look at that now,” says Zach. “The needs are still there. It is going to be a part of the process to see whether or not we will change anything, but the needs are there.”
Ingle believes new or renovated facilities are the easiest to get approved, because the voters know what the outcome will be. Less visible expenditures, such as employee salaries, are more difficult to approve because there is no tangible effect the voters can see. Using this logic, the Oregon School District will have to show the voters exactly what they will see if the proposal goes through.
The future of the referendum will not be decided until the vote, however, and it can be hard to ask people to vote again on a subject they believed was just settled.
“There appears to be a certain amount of levy fatigue too,” says Ingle. “Imagine being a voter who in March was asked to renew a levy and then asked to vote in additional taxes the very next time around. Voters ask, ‘Didn’t we just vote on a school levy? Why more? What is this one for?’”
The task for the project’s supporters is to continue holding meetings and promoting the project. Open conversation between the citizens and the officials will go a long way in deciding if the future of the district will change.
In Beloit, the citizens and officials have already decided to change. Now, they must wait to see what this change will do for their community.