Massing Support for a Levy Without Mass Media

by Ron Whitmoyer

The current political landscape has placed school districts at the mercy of the voter to finance their basic needs. In our 1,100-student school district, the experience of a failed mill levy three years ago created an urgent need for us to become educated about campaign strategies.

The classic campaign strategy in most school communities involves using the mass media to attract widespread attention to the upcoming budget or tax levy vote. Such strategies tend to bring uninformed voters in unknown quantities to the polls.

My recent experience, working with a committed and well-organized campaign chairperson, helped us avoid the usual pitfalls when we returned to the polls to retry the needed mill levy. It also turned a 52 to 48 percent levy defeat into a rousing 65 to 35 percent victory 12 months later for a similar mill levy.

Minimal Publicity

Our campaign goal was to bring to the polls those likely to vote yes on the proposed mill levy while avoiding the mass publicity that might influence opposition voters to go to the polls. We found it prudent to have the committee invest their campaign finances to remind supporters to vote as opposed to mass media that reaches a random target audience.

At the beginning of the campaign, district and volunteer leadership needed to understand local opinions as this helped with setting district goals and the direction of the campaign. The school board held an open public forum and surveyed parents, staff and community members to develop a list of prioritized needs. We held an open meeting to fulfill the professional obligation to inform our public.

The school board’s funding decision was made three months in advance of the election. In preparation for the board members’ decision, I gave the board a list of possible programs and an associated cost for each and allowed them to choose which programs the taxpayers were most likely to support.

The levy campaign moved into a new phase when school board members and district administrators formed a partnership with the volunteers who organized and ran the campaign.

My experience suggests that encouraging one of your more ardent supporters to accept the chairmanship is important. I was fortunate to have an effective parent leader in our community who believed in the public school system and wanted to support it. She was an organized individual with good decision-making skills who delegated duties to other committee members.

The chairperson selected a vice chair and a secretary/treasurer and solicited about 50 volunteers from parents, staff and community members. Each volunteer understood the levy amount, its uses and the program and staffing ramifications in case it failed. Key volunteers led subcommittees, such as those overseeing voter registration and absentee ballots, telephone calls, door-to-door campaigning, promotional material/election day coordination and list development.

Classifying Supporters

We believe three distinct groups of voters comprise our district—the staunch opponents, the voters who always go to the polls (we call them “absolute voters”) and those you can count on as solid supporters of the measure.

Our chairperson designated a list development volunteer to obtain a registered voter data base on a CD or floppy disc from the county elections office. This list was refined to identify the absolute voters—that is anyone who has voted in each school election during the past three years.

The committee leadership assigned each volunteer a list of voters to contact either by door-to-door visits or by telephone. The voter registration subcommittee compared the list of registered voters to the roster of parents in the school district.

The committee then offered to register parents who were supportive of the upcoming mill levy. Volunteers asked voters if they planned to support the levy. If they appeared to be a solid supporter, they went on the “Get Out To Vote” list, or GOTV. The GOTV list became the essence of the campaign.

When volunteers encountered non-supporters in this process, those citizens were thanked for their time. If they had concerns, the volunteers provided additional information or referred them to the campaign chair or the superintendent. Based on these encounters, the committee compiled a list of “no contact voters” so they would not receive further reminders about the election.

The committee encouraged supporters to request and complete absentee ballots, which secured early positive votes and eased pressure on Election Day.

Our Calling List

One to two weeks prior to the election, the campaign committee sent a persuasive letter or flyer endorsed by key community leaders on specific levy issues to the GOTV list as well as those identified earlier as perennial voters.

The day before the election all individuals on the GOTV list were called to remind them to vote on Election Day. We used a company to place these phone calls automatically with a pre-recorded message for a minimal cost.

On Election Day volunteers served as poll watchers at each voting location. (You should check your state election regulations for legal guidelines.) The poll watchers tracked voters on a triplicate form of the GOTV list and forwarded the names of those who had not voted by midday to a bank of phone callers.

A centrally located phone bank staffed by volunteers began operations about four hours before the polls closed. From each precinct we brought one copy of the triplicate form to the phone banks so volunteers could call those perennial voters who had not yet cast ballots. This process was repeated every one to two hours.

The result was an astounding success—passage of a 10 percent increase to the district operating budget, which brought in necessary funding to allow East Helena schools to meet the state standards.

Ron Whitmoyer is superintendent of the East Helena Public Schools, P.O. Box 1280, East Helena, MT 59635. E-mail: The author acknowledges the contributions of Carol Wilcock, district PTA president and chair of the levy campaign, in preparing this article.