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This Just In ...

Kevin Fischer is a veteran broadcaster, the recipient of over 150 major journalism awards from the Milwaukee Press Club, the Wisconsin Associated Press, the Northwest Broadcast News Association, the Wisconsin Bar Association, and others. He has been seen and heard on Milwaukee TV and radio stations for over three decades. A longtime aide to state Senate Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature, Kevin can be seen offering his views on the news on the public affairs program, "InterCHANGE," on Milwaukee Public Television Channel 10, and heard filling in on Newstalk 1130 WISN. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, and their lovely young daughter, Kyla Audrey, in Franklin.

So Kev, what happened with those Franklin referenda?


In 2007, yours truly single-handedly waged a PR war against Franklin’s $78-million school referenda. They were soundly rejected by a 60-40 margin.

The controversial $78.17 million two-question Franklin School District referendum sank at the polls April 3, 2007.

The referendum was set up so that to pass both questions required a majority of school district voters to say "yes." By a wide margin, voters said "no" to both questions.


Question 1:

No

3,811

Yes

2,495


Question 2:


No

3,851


Yes

2,365 

This year I also tried to persuade voters to turn thumbs down to three referenda, for lack of merit assuredly, but primarily because of poor timing for the expense. Tuesday’s Franklin ballot contained three whopping property tax increases (school referenda) totaling nearly $50 million.

Two of the three passed with a total price tag of $33 million. That’s a lot of tax money during a non-recovery recession.

Here are Tuesday’s results.

So what happened? What happened between the 2007 ballot bomb and this year’s 2/3 success?

In an issue of Wisconsin School News put out by the Wisconsin Association of School Boards around the time of the 2007 election, Tom Joynt of the Administrative Leadership Department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee wrote about successful referendum strategies. The basis of his article is a 20-question survey that was mailed to the superintendents in all 70 school districts that had a successful referendum in 2005 or 2006. Forty-four completed surveys were returned, a response rate of 63 percent.

The survey was split into two sections: “Deciding to Hold a Referendum,” and “Strategies Used after a Decision Was Made to Hold a Referendum.”

In the “Deciding” section, the lowest-rated item was asking for student input on needs that were finally included in the final referendum. More weight was given to community input and opinions from staff.

After the decision was made to hold a referendum, there was a strong consensus to provide special information to parents and the media. I’m sure the Franklin got the word out to parents in 2007, but I can’t speak about their efforts to feed the news media. While the referenda garnered the obvious attention on this web site and in the community newspaper, it barely got a whimper in the Journal/Sentinel. To be fair, the larger Elmbrook referenda may have overshadowed our slightly smaller ballot questions. But it appeared the Franklin school district needed to make major improvements in the media relations department.

The Wisconsin School News survey also generated strong support for providing district residents with estimates of the tax impact of a referendum. Here, I believe the Franklin dropped the ball back in 2007. It chose to concentrate on the owner of a $250-thousand home. The less expensive homeowner, according to supporters would only pay what they considered a small tax increase. In embracing that approach, the supporters never told the whole story that included Wisconsin’s outrageous tax climate. The argument that if you had a three-car garage and a huge front lawn that you surely could plunk down even more in taxes didn’t draw guilt…it made voters upset.

Another survey idea that received a high endorsement if you wanted to have a successful referendum was to send a brochure to all community residents explaining all accurate details. Maybe Franklin officials thought they could save money by holding meetings, producing a video, and using the Internet. I never received one piece of propaganda in 2007. Many people I spoke with also got nothing in their mailbox. Again, a possible strategy that never made it into the Franklin playbook, and we all know what happened. The referenda failed overwhelmingly.

The survey respondents also highly recommended holding public forums. Now this, the Franklin school district conducted dozens of times. I can only surmise that whatever message that was disseminated at those public forums failed to resonate with those in attendance.

The personal comments on the survey were very, very interesting.

The superintendent in Oakfield, Joe Heinzelman warned, “Make sure you follow through on what you say will happen if a referendum fails.” The author of the article Tom Joynt writes, “Empty hyperbole and overstated claims before a referendum will haunt public officials for many years.” In Racine back then, it was the threat of eliminating all high school athletics. (It never happened). In Franklin, the threat was that trailers would have to be installed. Did they mean it?

According to Joynt’s article, Sue Alexander, superintendent of Markesan “felt unity of the school board in supporting a referendum is significant.” Interesting. In Franklin, right before the 2007 election campaign, two incumbent school board members chose not to run. Three school board seats were filled on April 3 with all three candidates running unopposed, two of them opposed to the referenda.

Jamie Benson, superintendent in River said the community-driven “yes” group was the “number one key to passing.” The NO vote had absolutely no organization. The YES vote did have an organized group, albeit it got in the game late and its effectiveness is highly questionable. Why wasn’t there a stronger organized COMMUNITY voice? That’s clear. The community never got behind this effort.

Superintendent David Wessel of Spencer offered this advice: “make sure you ask for enough,” but he also added, “don’t go overboard.”

And finally, Joynt writes, and this is where Franklin school officials needed to listen up, that there were “cautions to school leaders not to take the outcome of a referendum personally, but to view the results as the voice of the people participating in democracy. One respondent observed, ‘It is really the responsibility of the community to decide what type of schools they want in their community’.”

And so we have in Sheboygan a similar controversy that has played out in Franklin and many, many other school districts around the state: teachers engaging in politics and propaganda on school time.

In 2007, the Franklin school district was cavalier and arrogant.
The Friday before Election Day, April 2007, during school time, hundreds of Franklin seniors of voting age were taken to an Assembly and then drilled by school personnel about why they should vote for the referenda.

Doors to the Assembly reportedly were locked so no one could leave and no one could enter to see and hear what was going on.

I wrote the following at the time:

The impropriety of this action by Franklin school officials is clear. The surprise Assembly on the Friday before the election should never have taken place. I’m not sure if the Assembly was illegal, but it certainly was extremely unethical.

It smacks of a desperate, underhanded, sleazy maneuver by folks who must be very worried about the outcome of the election. On principle alone, these referenda need to be resoundingly rejected.

Shame on the Franklin School District for this disgusting and despicable tactic!”

Later on April 2, 2007, just prior to the final vote, I blogged an e-mail I received from a Franklin parent:

“Now that the school district has given the senior class a civics lesson and is encouraging them to exercise their right and privilege to vote(many for the first time):

1. Will they be excused from school to vote?
2. Will the students get a lesson in how to register to vote; how to determine what district they live in; and where their polling place is located?
3. Will they provide transportation to the polls?
4. Will they earn a grade for voting---how are the students going to be assessed following this civics lesson? Will they have to wear the I Voted sticker as proof of voting?
5. Will they tack on an additional 2 hours to the make up school days since the students missed first/second hour to attend this civic lesson?

I have more questions to add but the most important one is:

When will the investigation into the legality of this action begin? Who will be held accountable?”


So what happened? Why did the referenda fail so miserably? There were many factors that contributed to the referenda defeat in 2007 that tie in with Tuesday’s results where two out of three referenda were approved.

1) Sticker shock. The $78-million price tag was simply too high in 2007. This time, the cost was much lower, and divvied up into three separate questions.

2) No guarantees. In 2007, the school district could not convince voters that spending $78-million would automatically result in dramatic improvement in student achievement. This time around the district as it did in 2007 never argued academics. It argued needs for the kids. And More voters than not bought in.

3) Empty promises. At their own informational meetings in 2007, school officials admitted that even if the referenda were approved, class sizes might not get smaller. This time, referenda supporters made no promises of any kind, again stressing needs.

4) Blank check. The school district had no plans, no drawings of what the new high school would look like, and no site for the new school. This time, there were viewable drawings.

5) Timing. Property owners in 2007 had just paid their bills a few months ago. Wisconsin taxes are among the highest in the nation. This was not the time to ask for a massive property tax increase. In 2012 it still wasn’t the time, but many voters sided that now was better than later.

6) Needs vs. wants. The school district needed a Buick, but asked for a Rolls Royce in 2007. This time they asked for a Buick.

7) Attitude. It’s never good to insult the voters. They saw right through the arrogant, “But you just don’t understand, let me try to explain it to you” approach in 2007. Less condescension in 2012.

8) Bad omen I. Two School Board members chose not to seek re-election in 2007. In 2012, most school board members voted to put the three referenda on the ballot.

9) Bad omen II. The main cheerleader for the referenda, the school superintendent, came out of a closed door meeting with the School Board and said he was resigning. In 2012, the main architect of the referenda, Superintendent Steve Patz was a cheerleader bent on getting the votes.

10) The public trust. Add #’s 8 and 9, and your credibility with the public was eroding in 2007. That obviously wasn’t the case in 2012.

11) Bad PR. Someone put fliers promoting the referenda in City Hall in 2007. It came to our attention, the fliers were removed immediately for obvious reasons. In 2012, the shenanigans were almost non-existent.

12) More bad PR. The Friday before the 2007 election, Franklin High School seniors of voting age are sent to an Assembly on school time, and are drilled about the importance of voting, “yes.” WTMJ-AM reported it, and just days before the election, supporters look disorganized and desperate. No such controversy in 2012.

13) Major miscalculation. 2007 supporters thought they could go to the voters, play the guilt card, proclaim “it’s for the children,” and ask for the moon. Thinking the tax revolt was dead, they underestimated the anger of the taxpayers, who sent a loud and clear message at the polls. The same should have happened this time, but enough voters bought into the “these needs are for the children” spin.

Now we have future projects that will include ongoing operation and maintenance costs. Don’t blame me and the other NO voters every December when the bill comes due in your mailbox.

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