“You have to get your story out there and what the facts are because there are all kinds of other stories out there that may not be 100 percent true and accurate,” Weddington said.
Having a “unified, common, streamlined message” is key to campaigning, Stanley said. Henderson County chose “Investing in Excellence.” The message, she said, was sold based on three needs: technology infrastructure, 21st century learning spaces and capital maintenance.
Owen Daugherty, a fifth-grader at West Marion Elementary, is all smiles next to one of the
district’s pro-nickel tax signs. The message was conveyed not only by the signs, but by parents
and other supporters who took photos like this and posted them on their Facebook pages.
(Photo courtesy of Marion County Schools)
Weddington said besides the message that nickel tax revenue can be used only for construction and renovation, proponents in the Lewis County campaign also emphasized that the improvements would be good for the community as a whole.
“We’re hoping that when industry comes here and looks, they’ll see a nice, new $18 million school, and that’s a pretty good incentive to come to an area,” he said.
Lewis County’s nickel revenues were tied to replacing a 1930s-era elementary school, so the district had to overcome the issue of only one school benefiting. Weddington said the response was: “This is going to be the first one that comes out of it, but after we get this one done, then in a few years we’ll have some more money to go and fix another school. If we don’t get this money, then it’s going to be 30 years before we get enough money to fix this school, so therefore they’re all going to be bad by the time that rolls around.”
Schlosser said one argument she used in Marion County contrasted the benefits of the nickel tax – equalized by the state – with increasing the tax rate to earn 4 percent more in revenue. The former gave the district a $28 million bonding potential compared with the latter’s $5 million, plus she calculated that the 4 percent option would eventually generate a larger average tax bill for residents.
Weddington said the Lewis County pro-tax group talked to people who had signed the recall petition and tried to dispel rumors around the issue. “I feel like several of the people who signed the petition actually voted for the tax,” he said.
The core district group that did a lot of the campaigning in Marion County, which had already seen the nickel tax defeated in an earlier referendum, took a different approach. “We didn’t go out into the communities and do town hall forums, because the only people that show up are the people who are against it,” Schlosser explained.
Instead, supporters in Marion County focused on getting pro-tax residents to the polls and also targeted those who might not have had information on the levy.
Board View: Deeper lessons learned in Marion
Kaelin Reed learned a few lessons from his experience in stumping for his school district’s nickel tax, and not all them were about taxes or lobbying.
Reed, vice chairman of the Marion County school board, was one of the public faces out in front talking about the tax, which would provide needed revenue to replace and upgrade aging buildings. As he talked to people who were against the nickel, he said he learned not to close any doors.
“Just because someone is opposed to a tax increase doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t support the mission of the school board; it doesn’t mean they don’t support us,” Reed explained. A tax, he said, “is a base financial fear that a lot of people have.”
“A lot of times you would get to the end of a conversation with someone and you would say, ‘You know what – it’s clear that we’re not going to agree on this issue, but you’re obviously engaged and you care about this issue. And that tells me that there’s going to be some other point in the future where we’re going to be able to work together on a project that we can both get behind.’
“So I wanted to make sure we didn’t burn any bridges.”
Reed said as an attorney, his first instinct “is to counterpunch and refute. But a lot of smart people around me really convinced me that the thing to do was to stay positive, talk about what the plan was for the district, talk about what extra opportunities we were going to be able to provide. That’s what I learned,” he said.
The campaigning and outcome of the nickel tax referendum also reinforced his views of his community. “We look out for our own and we have a very strong sense of community here,” Reed said. “We’re not just a suitcase community … the people who live in Marion County live and work here. They are engaged in community issues.”
He said the nickel issue was worth getting behind, even though it might come at a personal cost. “It’s difficult because we all are board members, but also I’ve got a business in town, and anytime you take sides on a controversial issue, you’re going to turn off a certain segment of the public that you may hope to provide services to,” he said.
Reed said it stings a bit that though the tax was approved countywide, he’s not sure it passed in his own electoral division.
“I knew there was going to be some pushback and I was willing to accept the consequences if it didn’t go my way, and I’m willing to accept the consequences if that’s the issue a couple years from now when I have to run again,” he said. “If that’s the issue that ends my time on the board, I’m proud of what we’ve done with that.”