Saturday, July 29, 2017

Primer: How a Dedicated Group of Young Actives Influenced a Board Election

This important and energizing primer to all active teachers and faculty leadership goes out as schools begin to gear up for the new academic year, meetings about contracts, or possibly new board elections.  Last year, a dedicated team of teachers successfully took on the incumbent Tea Party in an Illinois School District with the help of the entire faculty and a carefully constructed plan to tap into positive messaging.  Reading this outline is so motivating and helpful, I hope you will scrutinize and pass along.   You gotta admire these guys!  

Teamwork, Young Actives!
Against the Odds: Winning a School Board Election Amid Adverse Circumstances

“We teach in a high-achieving suburban high school district in a red county. Our Association has approximately 400 members. This is the story of how our Association-backed candidates won four seats on our school board in 2017. If we can make this happen, any local can. 

Facing declining enrollment and an adversarial relationship with the previous board’s majority, we knew we were up against incredibly difficult odds in the 2017 school board election. Four seats were up for grabs, with two incumbents running and a four-person Tea Party slate vying for them. Months in advance of the election, we began recruiting and vetting potential candidates for our Association to support. After our LPAC committee interviewed all of the candidates who were willing to sit down with us, we decided to endorse 3 candidates who we believed shared the values of our educational mission; we deliberately chose 3 (despite 4 available seats) because we did not want to attach ourselves to an unpopular incumbent in a change-based election. We also felt this would prevent our Association-endorsed ticket from being split by voters who liked the most well-known candidate from the Tea Party slate, who happened to already hold public office at the county level. Our endorsed candidates were strong and motivated, engaging in their own campaigning and canvassing, but we as an association were incredibly active in this campaign. 

From the beginning, we took an approach that was laser-focused: we, like many public employee organizations, had for so long been so intently driven to refute the outlandish and inflammatory Tea Party sentiments that devalue education and the role of teachers that we realized that we were preoccupied with their rhetoric. We deliberately made the decision to IGNORE THEM in this election. We will never change their minds, no matter how much we reason with them, because they fundamentally do not value the service we provide to the community. Instead, we focused on relying on the relationships we'd built over the years and connecting with those in the community who DO value education - fellow educators, parents of children in our schools and our feeder schools, recent alumni, and friends/family/neighbors living in the district - to increase voter turnout (which is historically dismal in these odd-year spring elections).

Follow this plan, please!
Our primary message?  
STRONG SCHOOLS = STRONG PROPERTY VALUES. The Tea Party slate was proposing a 10% cut to the levy that would absolutely gut education quality and, as a result, gut property values when school quality dropped. Whatever meager tax cuts they might provide in the form of decreasing the levy would result in disastrous cuts to education quality and very little actual realized savings to the taxpayer (approximately $200/year for an average district boundary household, according to our math). The Tea Party slate was promising tax cuts they wouldn't deliver and education cuts they would deliver. Meanwhile, our Association-endorsed candidates were fiscally conservative and responsible but also knew the value of quality education in our community.

So to get this message out, we took a three-pronged approach to the election: 

#1: Increasing voter turnout 
Education is a relationship-based industry, so we relied heavily on those relationships. It could easily be said that our relationships won this election for us. Please take that as the ultimate affirmation that WHAT WE DO MATTERS! People trust us as the professionals we are and when we talk about education, they will listen! Through internal communications with the Association (primarily home email addresses and Remind101 texting), we provided scripts to our members to share with friends/family who live in the district through whatever communication tool they felt most comfortable using (email, text, Facebook messaging, phone calls, personal conversations, etc.). We gave incredibly explicit instructions - easy copy-paste text and scripts - and our members shared it with everyone in their circle of contacts who lived within district boundaries to get the word out about the election.

We also tapped into our relationships by reaching out to recent alumni; our membership sent emails and Facebook messages to students who had recently graduated, encouraging them to early vote over spring break if they were still registered in our boundaries (which many of them were due to the recent presidential election). We provided links to early voting locations and instructions. We also provided them with absentee voting information to vote by mail. Because so many of our recent grads value the experience they had in our classrooms, they were more than willing to go the extra mile for us when we let them know how important this election was for future generations of students to receive the quality education they'd received.

Finally, we connected with our PTO and athletic booster organizations, feeder school locals, and lists of IEA members living in our district boundaries.

Compared to the local election in 2015, we increased voter turnout by over 5%; this doesn't sound like a lot until you realize that turnout in 2015 was just over 10%. Turnout in 2017 was nearly 16%. While 16% is admittedly still terrible turnout, it signified a HUGE increase from the election two years prior. We considered this a huge victory.

#2: Social media outreach
When examining our target demographic, we discovered that placing a hard-copy ad in the local newspaper would be a pointless waste of precious resources; the demographic we were trying to target gets their news from social media (Facebook and Twitter primarily). Since we were organized early, we began driving traffic to our Association Facebook page four months prior to the election by posting "sunshine" stories about student and teacher successes. We also aligned these posts with Twitter to reach a broader audience. We "sponsored" posts using our IPACE funds to be sure that our posts were being seen by people of voting age in our district boundaries. When the official campaign started mobilizing, we shared local endorsements for our candidates, our candidates' written and video statements, video of candidate forums, and other pertinent information on Facebook and Twitter. We shared positive statements and videos about our candidates, touting their expertise and suitability for office. But this digital outreach became even more crucial when a candidate on the opposing Tea Party slate was found to have engaged in abusive, vulgar behavior online. We were able to show this activity to the public via social media and the candidate and opposing slate received tremendous negative attention online and in local newspapers when our posts went viral through extensive sharing.  We also designed easy-to-share and easy-to-read infographics that our members could use as their profile pictures and share with friends.

#3: Targeted campaigning
Our 400-person membership was tremendously engaged in this election process. However, we did have what we began to affectionately refer to as "The War Room" - a core group of about 10 members who were the driving force behind the campaign and were responsible for the campaign strategy and mobilizing the broader membership. One of the members of the War Room (a psychology/sociology/history teacher) came up with the idea of targeted campaigning; he analyzed the data from the 2016 presidential election and realized that although the county had gone for Trump, a large portion of our district boundary had gone to Clinton. We dissected this voter data down to the precinct, even down to the intersection. When it came time for mailers/door hangers to be distributed (which the opposing slate was doing in force and with a huge budget), we realized our meager budget did not allow for such activities. So instead, we looked at those precincts that voted Democratic in 2016 and targeted them; our philosophy was that these were, to generalize, people who valued education as evidenced by their prior blue votes but who might not turn out for this local election due to a lack of awareness. We believed it was our job to make them aware of not only how damaging the other slate could be for the future of education in our district, but also how valuable and beneficial our endorsed candidates would be. 

We stuffed envelopes labeled by precinct with door hangers advertising our candidates and how much they value education. At the final association meeting before the election, we distributed these envelopes to our membership along with maps of the precincts. We instructed them to hang these materials on the doors of any family with children, and then to canvass everywhere else. Again, we were targeting a specific demographic: people who value education but might not show up to vote on election day. When the election results rolled in, the precincts we targeted had much higher turnout than those we did not.

In the end, we succeeded in getting our endorsed candidates elected along with our preferred incumbent, which was a particularly surprising achievement given the name recognition of the opposing slate's top vote-getter. 

A bit too little and too late, but it's come to our attention that IEA actually provides many resources for locals to engage in grassroots action. We pretty much did everything with this election on our own; in the future, however, we plan to utilize the many resources that IEA provides.

So long for now.  Well done, War Room!
So, to summarize -- 

Keys to our victory:
Organization, organization, organization!!!
Strong candidates endorsed by the Association
Alumni outreach (absentee/early voting)
Outreach to boosters/PTO/other locals
Clear messaging
Social media outreach
Phone calls to all IEA members living in district boundaries
"The War Room" - core group of talented, motivated members who acted as a braintrust of campaign strategy and motivated the membership
Broad membership involvement
Targeted campaigning (right down to the precinct)

What we were up against: 
Motivated local Tea Party
Prominent county politician on the slate
Opposing slate "Tax Cut" agenda with no specific strategy (looks good on campaign signs)
Much larger budget

If we can succeed, anyone can!”

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