It’s not about winning a referendum, it’s about engaging and educating the public.
That was the message from Joe Donovan, president of the Donovan Group, the school communications firm hired to assist the district with planning for a possible referendum.
In an interview before Tuesday night’s school board meeting, Donovan said his job is to educate the public about the district’s needs by giving residents all the facts and “communicating with integrity.”
“Sometimes people go about with the wrong idea (about the process),” Donovan said. “It’s not about passing a referendum. It’s about solving a problem.”
In the Janesville School District’s case, the problem is building maintenance. A report from Unesco, a Madison-based management company, outlined an estimated $130 million worth of work to be done in district buildings. Of that amount, $77.84 million worth was classified in the report’s two most urgent categories.
The district has already put about $15 million toward the most urgent projects. The current annual budget for maintenance work, outside of custodial work and capital improvements, is about $1.4 million, district Chief Financial Officer Dan McCrea said.
Donovan told the board it is important to present the process as one that addresses the district’s needs in a way that “builds trust among stakeholders.”
“We believe that defining success in this way is important because it dramatically changes the tactics and procedures used by the district to address its needs,” Donovan said.
Instead of conducting a public relations campaign, the effort should be focused on educating and listening to the public, Donovan said.
“If the board does seek a referendum, we urge it not to view the referendum as won or lost,” Donovan told the board. “Instead, we see that a referendum solution we presented to the voters either passed or did not pass.”
Donovan asked board members to identify which groups they wanted to engage during the referendum process. Board members suggested parent-teacher organization and association members, Forward Janesville and other business groups, and service groups.
The board also asked Donovan to prepare answers for questions that it expects residents to ask. Those could include questions about a referendum’s tax impact or about maintenance work the district has already done.
Donovan also reminded the board of do’s and don’ts of the process.
First, he said it is important to overcommunicate and continue to do so throughout the process.
Second, Donovan said board members cannot allow their referendum efforts to evolve into advocacy. While educating the public is the goal, “we must not tell people how to vote and we must not campaign for a specific solution,” he said. Such efforts are not allowed under state law.
Finally, being completely truthful and not hiding information is the only way to build trust among voters, Donovan said.