There are two competing approaches for how to design a school bond proposal that can appeal to the voters. The first is to create a proposal that identifies compelling needs and then convince the voters of the importance of the projects. The other is to create a proposal that contains “something for everyone,” so more voters will have a personal stake in some part of the proposal. The first approach appeals primarily to the voters’ public-spirited instincts; the second approach appeals at least as much to the voters’ personal interests.
When our school board was deciding how to structure its bond proposal, the second approach prevailed. It was important, the argument went, that the bond contain many years’ worth of projects spread throughout the district, so it would have broad-based appeal.
I’m much more comfortable going to the public with a list of compelling needs than with a larger list that is more geographically distributed. I believe this district’s voters will support projects that benefit other parts of the district when the need is clear. This was true, for example, in 1995, when 70% of the voters supported a bond to build an elementary school in Coralville.
Moreover, there are several problems with the “something for everyone” approach. One is that by pursuing it, the board is essentially admitting that need is not the driving principle. Second, the throw-it-all-in approach drives up the cost—which creates its own counterarguments, both public-spirited and self-interested. Third, bond elections bring out many voters who don’t have kids in the schools, and who thus don’t have the same degree of self-interest in school projects, but who might be persuaded by a smaller set of projects with more compelling need.
There is also a risk involved in encouraging voters to approach the bond by asking “What’s in it for me?” The bond proposal is big, but it has to stop somewhere. As a result, the district now has a list of “future needs” that will not be covered by the bond; those projects will need to secure funding some other way, such as with a future bond proposal. Yet a look at the list shows that those projects are not geographically spread out at all. Under the “something for everyone” philosophy, why would the east side of Iowa City—the part of the district with the greatest number of voters—ever support a bond for those projects?
Over the long term, it would make more sense to cultivate the voters’ willingness to support necessary projects regardless of where the needs arise.