Several weeks ago, school budgets were put before district voters in school districts in Syracuse and across New York State. The school budgets were rejected in 53 out of 677 districts, some of those located right here in Central New York. In those cases, the districts have the option to submit a school budget for a revote on June 15. A second “no” vote forces districts to adopt a contingency budget, which can severely hamper their operations for the fiscal year.
Having a school budget rejected by voters puts a great deal of strain on the already-limited resources of a school district. It can create or exacerbate a strained relationship between the employees of a district and the broader community that may take years to heal. There are, however, a number of market research activities school districts can undertake that may help them craft a well-informed, responsible budget that is in-line with what taxpayers in the community are willing to support.
These market research options are offered at Research & Marketing Strategies (RMS) and include:
- Enrollment Projections – Getting an accurate estimate of the number of students that will be in the district at all the various grade levels in future years helps to assess staffing and building needs and address them in a proactive rather than reactive manner. It also allows districts to justify aspects of the school budget by documenting tangible anticipated needs. One method of enrollment projection includes the Cohort Survival method, which combines live birth data along with historical enrollment trends to arrive at estimates for up five years into the future. Another method is a district-wide census of households, which counts the number of school age and future school age children in the district.
- Community Perception Surveys or District Surveys – One underlying cause for budgets being rejected by voters is a disconnect between districts and the communities they serve. Sometimes it is difficult for districts to gauge the priorities of the community, the public perception of the district’s performance, or any number of other factors that can influence school budget voting. A way that districts can get a better handle on those attitudes is to conduct a Community Perception Survey. Such studies are typically conducted either via telephone or online, and they measure attitudes and opinions about a wide range of aspects of the district including academic performance, the importance of athletics, the conditions of facilities, and so on.
- Quick Pulse Surveys – This method is similar to the Community Perception Survey but the survey is briefer and more focused on a single issue. This type of market research is used just prior to a vote to assess support for the school budget or after a failed school budget or referendum vote to assess why people voted the way they did.
- Community Stakeholder Focus Groups – This is a qualitative technique whereby a cross-section of people from the community such as parents of students, non-parents, retirees, business leaders, public officials, etc. are brought together in groups of eight to ten participants and engaged in a moderated, structured discussion regarding issues of interest to the district. Focus groups often provide deeper and more nuanced information than is available from a survey. They give participants an opportunity to explain in detail why they feel a certain way.
- School Board Retreats – In some cases, the School Board in a community may want insights on how they can operate as a more effective collaborative team, communicate better among themselves and with the community at large, or to help them focus on long-range concerns facing the school district. A structured, facilitated retreat held with the board members can aid this process. A retreat session might consist of a half day, a full day, or even a series of gatherings.
- Town Hall Meetings – A qualitative technique that offers an opportunity for school districts to present issues to the community and solicit feedback. Town Hall Meetings are prearranged, publicized gatherings in a large venue, such as an auditorium, where the school district can lay out the details of a school budget, spending referendum, or proposed district policy change in a structured presentation. The audience is invited to ask questions or offer feedback. This method can help districts achieve buy-in among the community, as well as allow for feedback on potential problem areas while there’s still time to make adjustments.
These market research methods can all be used alone or in conjunction with one another. And they all serve the vital purpose of helping school districts and the communities they serve understand one another and work together.