Funding Community Colleges: Winning Bond Elections
It wasn’t long after Richard G. Carpenter became chancellor of the Lone Star Community College System in 2007 that he was tasked with an important job.
Stung by voter rejection of a $250 million bond issue in 2006, the college’s Board of Trustees directed Carpenter to try again. If the fast-growing college was to meet its needs and serve its ballooning enrollment, more resources were critically needed.
So Carpenter set out on a months-long campaign to turn the earlier defeat around. The effort would ultimately succeed with flying colors. In May, voters in the Houston-area college district approved a $420 million, 30-year bond issue. More than 60 percent of the voters approved.
“We had lost an election 18 months earlier,” Carpenter says. “We were able to come back and win by a 2-to-1 margin. The district had never lost a bond election before. I don’t think they realized that the demographics had changed, and a new approach was needed.
“In the past, the district had just put out some public notices and held some meetings. That just was not going to work anymore.”
Carpenter instead pursued an approach embracing the full panoply of political tactics – combining retail politics with sophisticated polling, conducting town meetings and reaching out to specific groups of voters, making cogent arguments and aggressively refuting opponents.
According to Larry Tramutola, a California political consultant who specializes in bond issues, the recipe for today’s successful bond campaign must be made up of a diverse stew of tactics. No longer is it enough to merely identify pressing needs and expect voters to agree.
“It is very difficult to pass a bond election if you rely just on traditional media,” Tramutola says. “You need a grassroots effort. You need one-to-one campaigns. It could be phone banks. It could be door-to-door. The goal is to put a human face on what the measure means.”
Tramutola says the most essential thing college leaders can do to win over skeptical, budget-minded voters is make sure that the bond proposal is solid and worthy of public support.
“First and foremost, colleges have to be very deliberate about developing a quality plan,” he says. “It really has to be more than just about the money. It has to make sense educationally to the voters.”
The most successful campaigns are run from the ground up, he says.
Also critical is the timing of the vote. General elections in November are likely to produce much higher turnouts than those held in the spring. Making a careful calculation about the mood of the electorate and determining when the winds of support are blowing best is essential, he says.
“You want the best atmosphere, but you don’t want to be accused of running a stealth campaign,” Tramutola says. “When you treat people with respect, you won’t make the kind of mistakes that could hurt you.”
There are some rules of thumb common to most bond issue elections. They are more likely to prevail if voters know they will not result in a tax increase, if controversy and vocal opposition are muted and if support of local editorial boards is enlisted. Some studies suggest that chances for a successful bond election decline as the voter turnout increases.
To Lone Star College officials, the need for the bond issue was clear. The college serving northern metropolitan Houston is among the fastest-growing in the country. In fall 2007, the Lone Star College System reported 49,000 students in credit classes, an increase of 24,000 since passage of the system’s last bond measure in 2000. Building new facilities, expanding or renovating existing buildings and updating the college’s technology infrastructure were high priorities.
Coming up with a list of worthy projects was critical, Carpenter says. To develop it, Carpenter embraced a departure from how such elections normally work. He turned not to college officials, but to an 80-member Citizens Facilities Review Committee, to come up with a list of projects. Each of Lone Star’s five campuses was represented, as was distance education – an important consideration in a vast district that covers 1,400 square miles.
After two months of study, the panel was invited to make a presentation during a special meeting of the college Board of Trustees. The payoff was immediate and significant. By developing the list, committee members became part of the process and vocal, instant supporters of the bond issue.
“Some institutions just come up with a list,” he says. “That approach used to work, but this time we put together a group and let them do it all. By doing that, we had a lot of early buy-in. Ten community hospitals ended up buying full-page ads supporting the bond issue in the local newspaper. It sounds like common sense, but you’d be surprised by how many institutions don’t do it.”
“The package they put together was a work of art. It addressed critical needs and it didn’t come from the college. It came from the hospitals and the firefighters and the businesses. They owned it.”
In addition, the final list of projects was prioritized by college. Each item had a local aspect that voters could easily understand.
“That made a big difference,” Carpenter says. “It’s just human nature – what’s in it for me?”
The roots of the successful campaign actually run even deeper. In November 2007, the college changed its name from the North Harris Montgomery Community College District, its moniker since 1991, to the Lone Star College System. The new name was the result of an Internet vote aimed at making it a community project.
“What we found was many residents, as well as students on the individual campuses, did not associate their area college experience with the greater district of the North Harris Montgomery Community College District,” Carpenter says. “The new name gave us the chance to build a stronger brand throughout our district.”
Branding was also important to San Jacinto College, located on the southern side of Houston. On the same day Lone Star district voters went to the polls, voters in the San Jacinto district approved a $295 million bond measure, the district’s largest-ever bond issue. The winning side collected more than 70 percent of the vote.
Chancellor Bill Lindemann attributes the success of the bond issue to the college’s strong reputation and its close ties to the community it serves.
“We focused on meeting our workforce needs,” Lindemann says. “Everyone knows there is a shortage of allied health workers and in the STEM fields. Our two main initiatives were allied health and STEM.”
The district also stressed a new job training center, bolstering its ability to train workers for Houston’s burgeoning maritime and petrochemical fields.
It didn’t hurt that Lindemann had been named “citizen of the year” by the local chamber of commerce in 2007, a testament to the college’s strong ties to the business community. He made more than 60 presentations to community groups touting the importance of the measure.
“We stressed how the bond issue would meet the needs of the community. The connection was there. The bond issue was seen as adding real value to the community,” Lindemann says.
The district also made a special outreach to senior citizens, who are some of the most reliable voters in any election.
“We went to the senior citizens groups at the outset rather than wait to meet with them,” he says. “We asked for their support, and we got their support. I think when you explain the connections clearly, you will get their support.”
Carpenter said the district, with the aid of its political action committee, conducted polling early in he campaign. The polling was aimed at identifying so-called “trigger points,” the kinds of issues that would motivate supporters to go to the polls. The points then were stressed throughout the campaign.
Though neither Texas district encountered much organized opposition, dealing with foes was kept firmly in mind. Part of the reason the 2006 Lone Star bond issue went down to defeat was the fact that senior citizens were told by opposition groups – erroneously, as it turned out – that the bond issue would mean a hefty tax increase to the point where their homes would be jeopardized.
“Sometimes the anti-tax groups put out misinformation,” Carpenter says. “In the past, the college said ‘people won’t believe it. We won’t dignify it with a response.’ Well, people did believe it. This time, we made it clear we would respond immediately. The opposition backed down, and there really was no misinformation.”
Then there was the timing of the election.
“We debated that for some time,” Carpenter says. “There really are pros and cons. In November, you get a bigger turnout. But the flip side is that this year’s election is shaping up as one against the status quo. Ultimately, we decided to go in May, because we thought that November was going to be a hostile environment.”
For colleges contemplating bond issues, both Carpenter and Lindemann have some advice based on their experiences.
“Our bond issue was the culmination of two years of work,” Lindemann says. “I think the days of doing this in six months are gone. These are major political campaigns.”
Says Carpenter: “Get the community involved early. Develop a finely tuned political message and don’t deviate from it. Stress three of four points and pound away at them relentlessly. And understand this is a political process. To say that educators today can be apolitical is a fallacy.”