Delivering on Our Promises

When is the right time to start working on a school referendum campaign? 

The day after your last campaign. 

In November 2023, Richfield Public Schools celebrated 81% voter support for a technology levy renewal and 72% support for doubling its operating levy. It was more than the culmination of a twelve-week informational campaign. “We have been working on this since 2017, when we last passed a facilities bond and operating levy,” said Superintendent Steve Unowsky. “Even before that. Our school board prioritized community engagement, collaboration with our city, and following through on our promises. Earning the trust and support of our voters is something we work on every day.”

website landing page with information

Starting Early

The planning phase of Richfield Public Schools’ referendum campaign started a year before the election and built on existing community engagement and communications strategies. Grounded in the District’s Strategic Plan and informed by research, the plan prioritized clear messaging, robust outreach, and effective engagement to create a referendum proposal that the community could support.

To deliver on their promises in the Strategic Plan, Richfield communicated how the renewed technology levy and increased operating levy would support students, keep class sizes low, provide equitable funding, and continue meeting achievement and equity goals.

All successful referendums follow the four-step process of research, planning, implementation, and evaluation. Responsible finance communications planning and public opinion research informed the ballot questions, messaging, and communications channels (including the fact that 46% of respondents wanted a mailed community newsletter).

A multichannel communications plan provided several opportunities to engage with the larger community and ensure the public remained well-informed on the issues.

delivering on our promises it's time to renew
referendum bookmark with details

A Multichannel Strategy

Consistent with the district’s communication plan, all messaging needed to be clear, concise, and complete, with a clear call to action.

The campaign theme, “Delivering on our Promises,” aligned with the district’s Strategic Plan objective of closing graduation and opportunity gaps. It communicated to the community that the upcoming referendum would further student achievement.

A master in project management, Communications Director Jennifer Valley ensured the communications team followed a monthly campaign timeline, editorial and social media calendar, and detailed Smartsheet tasklist. She ensured fliers, posters, and materials were available at each school for Back-to-School events. Clear deadlines, messaging milestones, and administrator training ensured good use of the communication tools available.

The campaign’s messaging strategy focused on the referendum’s benefits for the students, ensuring public trust, and making voting easy. Materials were designed for readability, translations, and visual appeal within the schools’ brand identity.

The Power of Video

Videos are powerful communication tools that lend credibility and emotional connection to a message and create dynamic visual content to reach a larger audience. An informational video produced by Captivate Media featured recognizable people from the community (the mayor, beloved coaches, respected school leaders, teachers, and kids).

The video reached thousands of residents and educated the public about the two proposed questions.

A 2.5-minute version was also edited down to create six 30-second social posts to provide consistent messaging over six weeks of the campaign:
• About our 2023 referendum
• Learn more
• Question 1: Technology levy
• Question 2: Operating budget
• Why it matters
• Be a Voter

Equalizing Richfield’s Funding Among Surrounding Districts

Before the referendum, Richfield’s local operating referendum was half that of other districts, representing an unacceptable inequality. In addition, federal pandemic funding was expiring. Financial support from local taxpayers was needed to address this disparity.

School newsletters, targeted social media posts, campaign fliers, presentations, and mailers included a compelling graph that illustrated the funding disparity. The message reinforced the district’s commitment to equity and excellence for all.

Clear visuals broke down the proposed tax impact on the community and the investment required for the district to gain funding equity with more affluent neighboring districts.

Increasing the operating levy would increase taxpayers’ financial investment. An online tax calculator (provided by an independent public finance firm) made it easy for individual property owners to see their specific tax impact from a respected independent third-party — increasing credibility.

richfield referendum poster
operating referendum "dollars per student" vs districts disparity of richfield slight over $1000 and all other districts between $2000-2500

Implementation & Communication

This small, urban community relies heavily on community engagement, public trust, and strong relationships with community opinion leaders. The district demonstrated its connection to the community, through phone scripts to videos to text and print.

Tools and tactics supported a multi-channel approach:
• Website development
• Social media campaign
• Internal communications/presentations
• Media Relations
• How to Vote materials (e.g., bookmarks, informational postcards)
• Required notices
• Face-to-face meeting materials
• Training materials for staff (e.g., dos and don’ts, talking points)
• Building signage
• Phone and email scripts for voting reminders

richfield referendum newsletter front and back
question 1 yes 81% no 19% Q2 yes 72% no 19% total funding for 10 years $90 million

Measuring Success Beyond the “Yes”

Key performance indicators are a staple of any campaign. Setting up milestones and trackable metrics allowed the team to monitor progress. Conducting a thorough evaluation after the election will inform future communication plans.

No single communication tool reached all audiences during the campaign. Analyzing analytics and collecting feedback from volunteersis leading to change in the future. Videos, direct mail pieces, websites, social media posts, and fliers were the five most effective communication tools during the campaign evaluation. A new district newsletter, mailed to home, will be added to the district’s communication plan.

One of the most apparent indications of the campaign’s success was a 14-point increase in support from the pre-campaign survey to election day results. Question 1 passed with 82% support, and Question 2 earned 72% support. In addition, the district won supermajorities in every voting precinct, indicating broad-based community support.

Rallying around a central message, using a multichannel strategy, and engaging district opinion leaders contributed to overwhelming success.

With voter approval of increased funding, Richfield Public Schools has stabilized district finances and can continue to deliver on its promises of equity and excellence in education while maintaining high levels of public trust.