Genoa City Jt. 2 School District, a 4K-8 district, was struggling to meet their current needs for staffing, programming, maintenance, and space due to limited State funding. They were also going up against an aging Brookwood Elementary School that was impacting the quality of learning for students and experiencing a significant increase in unexpected maintenance costs, making them unable to address the ongoing issues. To combat this, the District presented two referendum questions to their community on February 21, 2017:
The first was a referendum to exceed the revenue cap, which would allow them to meet their current budgetary needs, as well as addressing their shortfalls in resources, programs, and staffing.
The second was a debt referendum to modernize the learning spaces to support the educational needs of today’s students.
We sat down with Genoa City Jt. 2 School District’s Superintendent, Kellie Bohn, to learn more about the referendum process for the district.
How will the approval of the two referendums benefit the District?
The first question we asked of the community was the operating referendum because that was really critical to us. We were one of the lowest spending districts in 1993 when the revenue caps were imposed statewide, so we have just been struggling to stay afloat. This referendum was just needed money to upgrade resources, to help with staffing, to even allow us to maintain current levels, and expand a little bit and grow. This referendum is going to be so beneficial and have a big impact on our District.
The second question was on the facilities project. We have a 1908 elementary school building with four classrooms. Over the last two years, we have had $100,000 of unexpected maintenance costs in that building alone. The facilities funding is to renovate that school and to rebuild new classroom space, and then to add a cafeteria and complete remodels of a portion of the space. I think the impact on the elementary building is focused on upgrading and really making it more conducive to 21st century learning.
What was the most challenging part of the referendum process?
The most challenging part of the process was just making sure we were getting our message out and that people had the information. We’re just never sure if everyone has the right information or even enough information.
A funny story, about a month and a half prior to the referendum, I was at a school event and I was standing with a poster board of the referendum information and I was getting comments like “Oh yeah, this is going to be a great project!”, like they thought it had already passed! They were all in favor and they didn’t realize there was a voting piece! So it’s just making sure people really understand their role and the importance in their role.
Genoa City taxes are high for a small community, so even though both questions brought no tax impact and no increase on the mill rate, it is still sometimes a hard sell. We projected out two years of no tax impact, knowing that although there would never be a tax impact from these questions, there could be other things that come up two years down the road, which we are not aware of that might raise that mill rate. So you don’t want to say there will never be an increase in the mill rate, because people don’t always understand the variables. There was some late night conversation, not on our Facebook page, but other Facebook accounts in the community about concerns about the tax rate and what that really meant, so that was unnerving, because we felt we had done a good job of communicating the tax impact.
How did you educate the voters, parents, students, and staff on the sense of urgency to take action now, rather than later?
Well I think when you talk anything about the messaging or any of the promotional materials, I mean that’s really where I feel it was such a benefit to work with Kevin and Becky from JP Cullen. I talked about the communication being the most challenging part, but before we had met with them, I just wasn’t sure how to even frame that information. How do you know? Where do you start? How do you package it in a way so that people don’t just glaze over it? I felt from a process standpoint, Kevin really just walked us through the process.
We could personalize the process as much as we wanted to, but he could just make some really solid recommendations. It’s reassuring to have somebody else looking through it with that other lens, so that it is voter friendly and makes sense. I think working with JP Cullen was the difference between putting out things that made sense to us and putting things that really were more marketing smart.
I feel like I can give Becky half thoughts, and then she can pull it together and that has been so nice. They have been through it before, just really that whole timeline piece. And, if there was something that we talked about that hasn’t been effective, Kevin was really honest about it. So you really feel like it’s okay and are only spending time on the things that are really going to have impact.
After the votes were counted, voters approved a $6.1 million referendum to build an addition and remodel the existing elementary school, on top of the approval of a $255k operational funding referendum.
If you could recommend one lesson learned to any other Districts considering a referendum, what would it be?
Be thorough in your process. I think that is one of the things that helped me during the community engagement part, because we had started talking as a board almost a year before. Talking about the financial challenges, doing a facility study, really kind of getting a little bit more immersed in what the challenges and issues were, so by the time it got into doing the sharing of information with the voters and public, I felt like I had internalized those things because you lived it for so long, it just kind of became a part of you. So, I think, especially as a new Superintendent, going slow with your process, really taking the time to gather that information and working with strong partners. I think all of those things are really important.
When we first started talking about the potential for referendums last year, I had gone to a couple of sessions at the WASB conference about the mailers and the stuff, and how your construction manager can be a partner. And I thought I don’t know if that is really necessary, I mean I can write my own stuff. And even as we got closer to the process, I really wasn’t sure. Kevin reached out and I think honestly that made all the difference. That would have been such a mistake not to make use of that service and Kevin and Becky’s expertise. It was probably was one of the main reasons that the referendum passed. Don’t underestimate the power of that service, because it is a deal breaker.
Kevin set up a meeting to develop a preliminary timeline and I think that it was at that meeting, you know you’re really looking at the scope of what has to happen in a very short time. I’m thinking oh yeah this is overwhelming. Glad that some of this stuff is already put together, so I think that was that point when I thought yes I absolutely need some help and guidance in this, and it feels much safer to be doing it with somebody who has been through it before. Not trying to recreate the wheel. And then, as soon as you start seeing the product, you’re like, there’s no way we could have done anything like that by ourselves!
What communication tools were the most useful in spreading the word about the referenda?
The mailers and those stickers! We got a lot of mileage on the stickers and just reminding parents to get out and vote. On both Monday and Tuesday, we stickered our kids before they left school, to remind parents to vote. Our parents are really hooked into social media, but our larger community would not be. And our District is not a District that routinely sends home mailers.
Because the strategy was different, it really made an impact. And because they were so nicely done, it generated a lot of talk in groups that we probably wouldn’t have reached through our social media.
Are you finding your District is in the same situation? Wondering what the next steps should be? Check out Kevin’s blog from last week, The Roadmap to Yes – Referendum Series.
Kevin Hickman is JP Cullen’s Referendum Expert who has supported over $300 million in facility and operational referenda in just the past five years. If you have questions about referendum services, please contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608.754.6601.