Keep residents part of the conversation on school referendum
The Medford School Board made the right call in actively seeking citizen input before making the decision to send a $39.9 million referendum back to the voters.
Between the November and December board meetings, the board members and administrators took portions of the poll list of registered voters in the district, grabbed phone books and started calling people. With more than 6,900 people voting in the district in the fall election and it losing by just 174 votes, attention was focused on areas where the referendum did particularly poorly.
It is easy to fish for affirmation in the echo chambers of social media where sophisticated algorithms ensure that those you interact with share your worldview with all its inherent biases. It is much more challenging to actually talk to those who have a high likelihood of disagreeing with you and to ask them for input on how to move forward.
The district is seeking money from voters to make major renovations to address building infrastructure needs, upgrade classroom spaces, particularly in science, technology, engineering and art, and address security concerns in the building. The project also addresses significant current and future needs within the special education department. Because of the need to rearrange and reallocate library space within the footprint of the building into the existing Red/White room, the plan also includes a new theater and gym space. The process of getting the referendum to voters was the culmination of two years of effort. It included facilities studies involving numerous compromises and revisions as board members fought to get the most bang for the taxpayer dollars while addressing current and future needs.
There is little doubt there is a need for the projects addressed in the referendum plans. The challenge comes from getting voters to be willing to make the investment and buy into the district’s plans. Getting this buy-in is where having ongoing conversations with voters is essential.
Like any good consumers, district voters like to know what it is they are buying before they make a major investment. While posters, displays and online videos about the project all have their place. Much like buying a home or a vehicle, nothing surpasses the human element of someone explaining how it addresses specific needs and explaining its long-term value in relation to its cost.
In a normal year, there would have been numerous opportunities for these conversations to occur. The pandemic eliminated many of these opportunities and the conversations which could have impacted the outcome of the referendum.
If board members truly want the referendum to pass, they must be willing to go out of their comfort zone and explain in one-on-one conversations not only why high school upgrades are needed, but why this particular plan is the best way of addressing current concerns and ensuring future viability. The initial efforts done over the past few weeks are a good start in that direction.