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 baby daughter, Kyla Audrey, in Franklin.
Supporters had an organized group working on their behalf.
The Franklin School District discussed it at numerous meetings open to the public.
A special video was produced by the school district.
Teachers talked about it openly in classrooms during school time.
Pamphlets were handed to students to take home to parents.
In a last ditch desperate move, an "Assembly" was held the Friday before Election Day where Franklin High School students were brought together behind closed doors and drilled.
They even threatened that ghetto-like trailers would have to be set up at some schools.
Opponents had.......well........only me writing on my blogs.
And yet, April's $78-million referenda were resoundingly defeated by voters.
A higher voter turnout for an April election in an odd -year added to an incredibly expensive price tag shot the two questions down in flames by a 60-40 margin.
On the night of April 3rd, I blogged:
Congratulations, Franklin voters!
Today, you sent a strong and powerful message to the taxing authorities that while you support quality education, you also favor the return of fiscal sanity to your community.
It is extremely encouraging that the Franklin community today stood tall and strong, declaring in a loud and clear voice that you will not tolerate exorbitant taxes and spending.
Thank you, Franklin voters for standing up and proclaiming that you refuse to increase your already excessive tax burden.
Days after the stinging defeat, I continued to get e-mails on the issue. One writer commented on remarks made by School Board member Sue Huhn on this web site and in the Community Newspaper in an article written by John Neville:
Huhn predicted the next school district referendum will not feature a new high school. She said it's more likely the next will propose a second middle school with extensive revamping of the high school. The latter, she said, will include some expansion - a new gym and auditorium with more fine arts department space.
An e-mailer wrote:
Tone deaf? “We don’t want to pay for an auditorium or a new gym when our kids kant spel!”
Where’s the improvement in the EDUCATIONAL facilities? They shouldn’t be in athletics if they can’t make change at McDonalds or write a coherent paragraph!
Still another e-mailer tied in the failed referenda to criticisms being made by, what the e-mailer called “eco-bloggers,” about one of the major development projects in Franklin.
That e-mailer wrote:
Some of the eco-bloggers here in town are all in a tizzy about the “sea of asphalt” on preliminary plans for the Shops at Wyndham Ridge… I’ve heard that the proposal will be for something like 900(parking) spots in the entire development…. Where was the eco-outrage at the 1000 spots for STUDENTS? I’m certain that the school district would not have added a good deal of eco-amenities such as covered walkways, extra wide grassy areas and salt resistant landscaping to their sea of asphalt… Fair is fair and being consistent is important.
So what happened? Why did the referenda fail so miserably? There were many factors that contributed to the referenda defeat I wrote about shortly after Election Day:
1) Sticker shock. The $78-million price tag was simply too high.
2) No guarantees. The school district could not convince voters that spending $78-million would automatically result in dramatic improvement in student achievement.
3) Empty promises. At their own informational meetings, school officials admitted that even if the referenda were approved, class sizes might not get smaller.
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.
5) Timing. Property owners 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.
6) Needs vs. wants. The school district needed a Buick, but asked for a Rolls Royce.
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.
8) Bad omen I. Two School Board members chose not to seek re-election.
9) Bad omen II. The main cheerleader for the referenda, the school superintendent, comes out of a closed door meeting wit the School Board and says he’s resigning.
10) The public trust. Add #’s 8 and 9, and your credibility with the public is eroding.
11) Bad PR. Someone puts fliers promoting the referenda in City Hall. It came to our attention, the fliers were removed immediately for obvious reasons.
12) More bad PR. The Friday before the 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.
13) Major miscalculation. 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.
There were many reasons to vote NO, but I’ll bet most of the NO voters never got beyond reason #1….the sticker shock.
The obvious question now is, what happens next? If I were on the Franklin School Board or the new superintendent, whoever he or she is, I’d display tremendous respect for the voters and exhibit a lot of restraint. You came, you asked, you were dumped. It would behoove the powers that be to put their hat away for awhile before they go back to the voters to pass it around again.
In an issue of Wisconsin School News put out by the Wisconsin Association of School Boards around the time of the 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 School District got the word out to parents, 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 Elmbrook referenda may have overshadowed our slightly smaller ballot questions. But it appears the school district needs 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 School District dropped the ball. 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. 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 survey respondents also highly recommended holding public forums. Now this, the school district did dozens of times. I can only surmise that whatever message that was disseminated at these public forums failed to resonate with those in attendance.
The personal comments on the survey are 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 not too long ago, 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 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 Valley 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 need 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.”
Franklin, you were not alone in your sentiment on referenda.
From the Green Bay Press Gazette:
All told this spring, voters around the state approved an estimated $239 million in new school district spending but rejected about $425 million.
Historically, when handed a defeat, referenda supporters always come back, again and again, and again, and again, and again, until they get what they want.
But with the prospect of recall elections being waged against some of their members, you don’t think the Franklin School Board would be foolish enough to propose another huge tax increase, do you?
THE TOP 10 FRANKLIN STORIES OF 2007
2) FRANKLIN VOTERS SOUNDLY REJECT REFERENDA
3) SCHOOL BOARD ADOPTS A 5.9% (NOT REALLY) TAX LEVY INCREASE
4) "ASSEMBLY" AT FRANKLIN HIGH BEFORE ELECTION
5) FRANKLIN ADOPTS A MODEL SEX OFFENDER ORDINANCE
6) THE GRAND OPENING OF SENDIK’S
7) THE EMERGENCE OF THE FRANKLIN BLOGGERS
8) FRANKLIN CITY TAX LEVY GOES UP 5.7%
9) SUPERINTENDENT SZAKACS FORCED OUT
10) THE LACK OF PROGRESS AT FOUNTAINS OF FRANKLIN