Publications & Products
Volume 2, Issue 4


How to Pass a Bond Issue or Tax Levy

Community colleges should use demographic data to determine the best time to request voter support for bond issues and tax levies, says a former institutional leader.

Larry Whitworth, president emeritus at Washtenaw Community College in Michigan, has studied the experiences of both successful and unsuccessful bond issue and tax levy votes. He recently gave a presentation at the inaugural CASE Conference for Community College Advancement that highlighted the steps needed to conduct a successful marketing and communications campaign for a bond issue or tax levy.

"First you need to define your reasons for going to the voters," he says, noting that a rationale might be to expand facilities to support the growth of the institution. "You need to define your message. And you need to create a compelling argument for support."

Whitworth says colleges then should ensure that everyone at the institution is "on board and supportive" of the campaign—from the board of trustees down to the students, faculty and staff.

These individuals are the public face of the institution, and will help bring information to voters. He adds that creating a "friends of the college committee" comprised of these and various supporters throughout the community is essential to help raise the necessary funds for a successful campaign.

Whitworth advises the following outreach to engage key supporters for such a vote:

  • College employees— A written communications from the president should be sent to all college employees explaining the "why" and "when" for the vote. The college also should establish a formal vehicle for questions and concerns to be heard and discussed openly.
  • Students, faculty and friends— Run an article in the student newspaper on the vote. Send an email to all students discussing the vote. Encourage faculty to remind students of the upcoming election and encourage them to vote.
  • Community voters— The college must keep these voters informed of the programs offered by the institution, its engagement in workforce development and its impact on the economic viability of the entire community. Use direct mail and other means such as social media to reach these constituents. Ideally, the campaign for the bond or tax vote is not the first time these individuals are hearing from the college.

Whitworth cautions that colleges should be mindful of campaign laws that preclude nonprofits from advocating for or against a ballot proposal. He noted that colleges need to be careful not to cross the line between providing information about a ballot issue and campaigning for a specific vote.

"Finally, you need to ask, ‘When should you be on the ballot?'" Whitworth says. "How much time do you need to prepare? And how can you increase your probability of success?"

He notes that spring elections are often difficult for community colleges to win bond issues and tax levies because voter turnout is low and the voting base is often older.

Whitworth says that November elections, by contrast, draw larger voter turnouts that are more representative of a college's service area—and probably includes many young voters, including students, who may be more likely to support a bond or tax to benefit the institution. He notes that colleges should research the voting patterns in their communities to determine when is the best time to bring forth a vote.

Please share your questions and comments with Marc Westenburg via email at mwestenburg@case.org or +1 202 478 5570.

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This article is from the October 2012 issue of the Community College Advancement News.

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