How DuPage County school districts won major referendum campaigns
DuPage County school districts were big winners Tuesday.
On its third try, Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 won approval to replace the Jefferson Early Childhood Center. Voters in Glen Ellyn Elementary District 89 supported a major operating tax rate increase. And in Elmhurst Unit District 205, the largest referendum request on the ballot -- a property tax increase to pay for $168.5 million in school construction projects -- easily passed.
Here's a look at the strategies behind the successful campaigns ...
District 205: Roughly 62 percent of voters approved the tax request that will cost the owner of a $500,000 house about $149 more a year, unofficial results show. The district will borrow tax-backed bonds to replace its two oldest buildings -- Lincoln and Field elementary schools -- renovate other schools and add classroom space to accommodate an all-day kindergarten program. The new taxes will show up on 2020 bills payable in 2021.
Superintendent David Moyer credited the support to a long-running outreach campaign that began in 2015. During the early stages of that effort, called "Focus 205," officials hired Unicom Arc Inc. as a consultant. More recently, Strategies 360, a national public relations and polling firm, helped coordinate the referendum messaging with the district's internal communications department and Marcia Sutter, who previously worked for Winnetka Public Schools District 36 and owns Minding Your Business.
"We had extensive involvement over the past two years just focusing on the facility piece itself, so we did a lot to reach out to people in various ways to help them understand the various elements of the master plan," Moyer said.
The expected high Democratic turnout was one reason "November was a desired time to bring the question forth," Moyer said. Then a well-organized ballot initiative committee remained an active presence, while the opposition was relatively silent.
"They had tons of coffees and sessions, and they were attending community events and meeting people at the train station," Moyer said of the volunteer group. "I mean, they were all over town."
District administrators will have a planning meeting with architects and the facilities department next week. In December, officials will look for consensus from school board members on project timelines to communicate the next steps before the holidays.
"If the economy wasn't doing well, it would have been a much harder climb, but I do think that the bottom line is there's been a recognition by the community that we need to address our facility issues," Moyer said.
District 200: The plan to build a new Jefferson won favor with nearly 72 percent of voters. What made the difference?
A tax-weary electorate twice shot down tax increases that would have funded a new Jefferson -- in 2013 and again last year as part of a substantially larger $154.5 million funding request for repairs and renovations at all but one of the district's schools. But unlike the previous two attempts, the district didn't ask for a tax increase Tuesday.
Officials will now finalize a lease agreement with a bank that will front the roughly $15 million cost of the project. Under the tentative terms, the district will retain ownership of the land off Manchester Road and rent the building for 20 years while paying the bank about $1 million a year out of operating funds. The district would take ownership of the building after paying off the debt.
"We're going to immediately being working with our architects and construction manager to put the process in place," Superintendent Jeff Schuler said late Tuesday.
With that alternative source of funding, the school board was prepared to forge ahead with construction earlier this fall but decided in the eleventh hour to put the question on the ballot rather than fight a lawsuit filed by former board candidate Jan Shaw, who accused officials of circumventing voters.
District 89: Almost 52 percent of voters approved the district's first operating tax rate increase since 1986, costing the owner of a $300,000 home an additional $396 a year. The additional revenue will allow the district to stop deficit spending, rebuild reserves and maintain existing programs, officials say.
Budget pressures from rising enrollment -- the district has added 302 students in preschool through eighth grade since the 2012-13 school year -- and projections for future growth also led the school board to place the question on the ballot.
The board's unanimous decision came after an "Our 89" community engagement campaign that included forums on the state of school finances and surveys. Without the revenue, officials warned the district could make cuts that could have included eliminating full-day kindergarten and offering a half-day program, eliminating extracurricular clubs and sports, reducing gym from five to four days a week, eliminating the gifted program for second and third grades, eliminating band for fifth grade, and eliminating orchestra for fourth and fifth grades.
"I think what contributed to the results of the polls last night was the level of engagement that we had with the community and the wiliness we had to meet with people throughout the whole process," Superintendent Emily Tammaru said.
A pro-referendum group mobilized in August, led by Mike Lullo, a retired audit partner at Deloitte and a professor at Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and Steve Neurauter, a business management consultant for an aerospace company.
VoteYesForOur89 Committee volunteers sent two different mailers to district residents, knocked on more than 4,300 doors over the span of four weekends and spoke to people at roughly half of those doors, Lullo said.
On the last weekend before Tuesday's election, the get-out-the-vote efforts specifically targeted supporters. Overall, the committee raised between $12,000 to $15,000 for its budget, Lullo said.
"We had support across the district to help us in our efforts," he said.