Hawthorn District 73 referendum strategy: Keep it simple

The decision by Hawthorn District 73 to seek $48.7 million from taxpayers in November for school renovations and expansions took months of laborious discussion, public sessions and fine-tuning. Now comes the hard part.

Presenting the merits of the ambitious program to parents and residents without kids in the system is the next and steepest step for the Vernon Hills-based district, which had a similar request soundly rejected in April 2017.

The effort will involve the district, which only can present factual information and not advocate a yes vote, and a to-be-determined committee of residents and others to sell the idea.

Dealing with crowded conditions is the biggest challenge facing District 73, which is seeking support for a building program to expand and renovate its six schools and build an 18-classroom kindergarten center.

The key to success, the school board has been advised, is to keep it simple.

"It's very important to have a story to tell with a simple message," said Joe Porto, one of two interim superintendents guiding the district this coming school year.

Porto followed that strategy as head of Avoca School District 37 during the teeth of the recession in 2009. With 59 percent of voters approving, the Wilmette-based district successfully made the case for a tax hike, a feat noticed throughout the state.

Data illustrating the situation can be made available online, but bombarding voters with too much information during the information stage isn't the answer, he suggested.

"Simplicity is really important. And consistency," he told the board during a presentation Monday. "It's not insulting to the community to keep it simple."

The first step is to identify a short list of talking points each supported by a "powerful but simple" document. Porto said he and Mark Friedman, the other interim superintendent, are working on that.

A referendum-related link on the district's website to include information such as a property tax calculator also is planned.

Two other keys will be to present exactly what happens if the request fails, and showing voters what the district has been doing to trim expenses. Both strategies were used in District 37.

"Most communities want to know that we've gone through a little sacrifice before you go and ask them for money. I think the same holds true here," Porto said.

Besides just discussing budget cuts, the district may want to show how the district has been operating in cramped spaces longer than was recommended, added board member Robin Cleek.

The referendum committee will operate separately. School board members can't serve on that, but teachers and other employees can as long as work isn't done during the school day or on school grounds.

Porto said activities could involve making calls, knocking on doors, installing signs, recruiting volunteers, raising funds and turning out the vote.

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  Vernon Hills-based Hawthorn Elementary District 73 will ask for voter approval to borrow $48.7 million for renovations and expansions at existing schools and a new kindergarten center. Mick Zawislak/
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