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At a time when many referenda for school operations failed to gain community support, voters here approved School District 65’s $14.5 million referendum by an almost unheard of 80% to 20% vote on April 4. Many attribute the success to the dedicated efforts of a core group of approximately 35 to 40 people, hundreds of volunteers, grass roots efforts to educate the community, and the community’s deep commitment to children, education, and the public schools.

A group of citizens began meeting to support the referendum in December, even before the Board voted on Jan. 10 to put the referendum on the ballot. 

 “We had a group of parents, community leaders, grandparents that came around a kitchen table at a friend of ours every Sunday night through the April 4 election,” said Eamon Kelly, an attorney with a law firm in Chicago and the designated Chair of the Committee to Support D65 Referendum. “Every other Sunday, a larger group of about 35 people who were involved in community organizations, people who were parent leaders, and leaders in different communities, met at the same location after the small group meeting.”

Bridgett Nelson, who worked for Accenture and in commercial real estate before having children who now attend District 65, viewed the people who participated in the Sunday night meetings as the “core group” who came together to “drive the effort forward.” While reluctant to take on a title, others told the RoundTable they viewed Ms. Nelson as a co-chair of the Committee.

Ms. Nelson emphasized there were about 40 people who attended the Sunday night meetings, and probably 500 individual volunteers who participated in some way in the effort.

Andy Ross, former Chief Operating Officer for Governor Pat Quinn and a District 65 parent, worked on messaging and communication strategies. Early on, he said, the Committee set up a data management system and, among other things, formed a parent outreach committee and a community outreach committee. The Committee hired Casey Anthony, who had previously done work for the Democratic National Committee, as campaign manager.

The Survey

After some initial planning and outreach, the Committee retained Blue Strategies LLC to conduct a survey between Jan. 29 and Feb. 1 to find out how much people knew about the referendum, which way potential voters were leaning, and what information might influence their views, said Mr. Ross.

At the start of the survey, people were asked if they would vote to authorize an increase in property taxes to support the operation of the schools: 49% said they would vote yes or would likely vote yes, and 49% said they would vote no or would likely vote no. 

Mr. Ross told the RoundTable that the vast majority of the people who were in the “yes” camp had previous knowledge about the referendum, and the vast majority of those in the “no” camp lacked prior knowledge about it.

The survey then asked additional questions that shared information with the respondents, such as that 1,500 additional students had enrolled in the District in the last 10 years at an additional cost now of $20 million per year, deficits were projected at $5.1 million in the next fiscal year and would balloon to total deficits of $112.3 million by 2015, and that unless the referendum passed, schools could close, every school would see larger class sizes, and teachers would be laid off.

After the information was provided, respondents were asked again if they would support a referendum authorizing the District to increase property taxes by $14.5 million annually to support operations: 58% of the respondents were in the “yes” camp, compared to 40% in the “no” camp. 

The survey showed that people who were provided with basic information about the referendum were more inclined to support it, said Mr. Kelly. The issue was how to educate the community in an eight-week period of time.

Parent Outreach

Ms. Nelson and Dawn Koenigsknecht co-chaired the Parent Outreach Committee.  “We wanted parents to be our core group,” said Ms. Nelson, “and they don’t typically vote, and we needed to get them energized. We did this by holding about a dozen information sessions at the schools. We worked with the PTAs to set up the sessions,” which began on Jan. 30. 

At the 90-minute sessions, School Board President Candance Chow or another current or former Board member and Superintendent Paul Goren typically presented information about the District’s financial position, how the District would use the referendum funds, the cuts the District would need to make if the referendum failed to pass, and they answered questions.

After the sessions, members of the Parent Outreach Committee asked people to support the referendum and to help. “We said, ‘It’s not enough if you as a parent vote, we need it but it’s not enough. You need to become like a multiplier.’ That really seemed to resonate with people. People understood, ‘It’s not just enough if I go to vote, I need to tell my neighbors, I need to tell my parents, my spouse. I really need to be 10 votes,” Ms. Nelson said.

Ms. Nelson said Ms. Chow and Dr. Goren did a great job at the information sessions. “I think the way the District presented materials and answered questions, really developed the trust and faith of the community. People were willing to make the investment. They understood, ‘If this doesn’t pass, our schools will be severely underfunded. It’s that simple.’

 “People left feeling this needs to happen and many saying, ‘How can I support the effort?’ We tried to do that over and over and over and over again. Sometimes in front of large groups and sometimes just in front of three people. We did a lot of house parties and coffees,” Ms. Nelson said.

Community Outreach

Valerie Weiss and Joi-Anissa Russell co-chaired the Community Outreach team. “We knew the school outreach effort wouldn’t be enough,” said Ms. Weiss. “We knew we really needed to get out and educate and reach people in other community organizations.”

 “I felt if we were going to do it effectively, we needed to do a certain amount of face-to-face active, grass-roots outreach. We needed to look people in the eye and assure them we genuinely believe this is important, but also to listen, to really listen to the feedback and to be able to address people’s concerns.”

Ms. Weiss said they had a core team of about 30 people who took the lead in contacting different organizations or groups. They held meetings with many Boards and asked if they would share the information with their members and networks, and if they could speak at an event when there was a good size turnout.

The team used their networks to reach out to organizations serving youth, arts and cultural organizations, the faith community, seniors, businesses, real estate agents, the pre-school community, and local politicians. “We were constantly looking for ways to educate and engage people who had access to another large group of people,” said Ms. Weiss.

She said the team sponsored 28 outreach events and 20 coffees/house parties.

Generally a School Board member and Dr. Goren would provide information and answer questions at the meetings and forums, and a committee member would ask people to support the referendum and to help.

“We wanted lots of people talking about this. It was like, ‘Go talk to your neighbor, talk to people on the playground, talk to people at your workplace, everywhere you go, engage,’” said Ms. Weiss.

Ms. Chow told the RoundTable her role and Dr. Goren’s role were to provide people with information to show the situation the District was in, why the money was needed, and how the District planned to use it.

“I think I went to over 100 events, ranging from large forums at the schools, forums at senior centers, churches and places of faith, neighborhood events, and coffees in people’s homes,” said Ms. Chow. She said every Board member participated in the information sessions, and former Board member Richard Rykhus did so as well.

Door Knocks and Phone Calls

“Eventually we got down to knocking on doors, making phone calls, one-on-one face-to-face contacts with people,” said Ms. Nelson.

People gathered at Democratic Party of Evanston’s office on Custer Avenue for six weekends, and volunteers were given a list of homes to visit, along with a script, flyers, and other materials. The volunteers asked people if they knew about the referendum, provided information, and asked people to vote, said Ms. Nelson.

Many volunteers took their kids with them, said Ms. Nelson. “A lot of parents loved sharing their experience with their kids, especially right now in this political climate. I think that even engaged people more.”

Mr. Ross said approximately 250 volunteers knocked on more than 20,000 doors of residents to provide information about the referendum. Many volunteers helped out on multiple occasions.

Mr. Ross said some people were not home or did not answer, but when people answered, the volunteers rarely received a “no.” “I’ve never seen anything like this; and I think part of what resonated so powerfully is that after the election in November, people wanted to be for something.

“People wanted to come together and saw this as an issue,” Mr. Ross said. “Evanston is such a special place. Our schools are such a special place that we could all rally around and really save ourselves. That’s what really impressed us so much.”

The Committee also mailed seven flyers containing basic messages to 12,000 households. Volunteers maintained an extensive data base, made thousands of phone calls, set up a website that provided information, managed a Facebook page, hung literature on 6,000 doors the day before the election, and raised funds to support the efforts. Hundreds of residents displayed yard signs; many businesses displayed signs in their windows.  

“We had great momentum. It became this issue people were really paying attention to. People were spreading the energy and spreading the message,” said Ms. Nelson. “The Evanston/Skokie community is a community that will step up and support and invest in the schools.”

While everyone thought it was essential to pass the referendum to preserve the schools, they were concerned about the burden it would impose on some homeowners. “Now we hope the community will come together to help find a solution for people who may feel a hardship as a result of the property tax increase,” said Mr. Weiss. 

Ms. Chow told the RoundTable she is currently guiding the work of a group of about 20 people exploring ways to provide some emergency assistance to renters and homeowners who find themselves at risk of losing their home in Evanston. Connections for the Homeless may take the lead on managing this effort, she said.

Another issue raised during the campaign was the continuing achievement gap at District 65 and how the District would use referendum funds to address equity and to increase achievement of black and Hispanic students. The District explained what it was doing to address equity, and some new initiatives that were planned if the referendum passed.

In explaining how the support for the referendum went from 49% on Feb. 1 to 80% on April 4, Ms. Chow said, “First and foremost there was an outpouring of care for kids and teachers and families.” She added that after the survey was completed on Feb. 1, there was “an intense outreach and information period,” and “people realized that there would be considerable and dire consequences for our education system if the referendum did not pass. I really believe that’s what made the difference … The vote is proof that folks in this community care immensely for education and kids.”

“I think in the end there was a grass roots movement of Evanston community members,” said Mr. Kelly. “We delivered the information in a lot of ways you traditionally deliver information, but then it went viral amongst our community. You can’t explain the result by traditional political communication.”

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...