New Dist. 728 initiatives seek feedback for referendum ballot

by Paul Rignell

Contributing Writer

 

As Elk River school officials have approached residents in recent weeks to get opinions on which campus upgrades should be asked in a fall bond referendum, the leaders are finding no surprise that more traditional methods of outreach are getting little reaction.

Take, for example, the community listening session that the School Board and administrators scheduled for Tuesday, May 6, at Zimmerman High School. The district hosts outnumbered a total of four guests that night. A second listening session was scheduled for May 8 at Elk River High School.

Residents have responded in other ways, however, through methods that generally were unavailable 10 years ago.

The district implemented an online survey April 24 where participating residents could answer questions from their home computers or with a smartphone. Administrators told the board members at a work session Monday night, May 5, that nearly 1,500 district residents had finished the online survey within 12 days.

“That’s more than anything we’ve ever done (or seen) before” from a survey, said Superintendent Mark Bezek.

Residents could find the survey at the district’s main website. If they were interested in following the links, all district parents with registered email accounts could be pointed to the survey page through a notification April 30 from the Campus Messenger service.

District residents without children in the schools have options to receive similar email updates on school news. Director of Community Engagement Charlie Blesener said that people who have been active in community education programs would be on the email list.

Staff also took to promoting the survey on popular social media sites Facebook and Twitter, which they may not have considered even four years ago when the district presented two questions to voters in an operating levy referendum.

Staff advised board members May 5 that they had been posting twice daily on Facebook from the district’s “ISD 728” page, with one message daily on the chance to answer a survey and a second message which linked to a separate, three-minute informational video.

The district has posted similar links through its “ISD 728” account on Twitter.

Staff shut down the survey option after a final day for responses May 9. Officials want to begin the summer break with a firm grasp on what to include in their requests for the referendum, and they are requiring the final weeks of the spring term to tabulate responses that came from the survey.

The introductory video is still available and being promoted through email and the social media sites.

Staff has seen that of the district’s Facebook followers, significant numbers shared the ISD 728 posts that directed users to the survey and video, said George Fairbanks, communications specialist and video producer.

“I think we have had really good coverage so far with social media,” he said.

District officials believe they have brought awareness of a fall referendum to more potential voters by this spring than in any previous year.

Some board members noted it is unclear, however, whether they have reached a high percentage of potential voters.

At the rate that residents were completing the survey through May 5, around 2,000 might have answered each of the questions by the end of the day May 9, but that still would represent less than 10 percent of district voters from November 2010 – a comparable year because it included Minnesota’s previous gubernatorial election before 2014.

A majority of district voters in 2010 agreed to renew an existing operating levy, but around two-thirds of those voters turned down a request to increase the levy for meeting increasing costs.

Dan Hunt was one of the board members May 5 to note that the number of completed online surveys was not yet close to what the district might expect for voter turnout.

“We’ve got a long ways to go. That’s just the way I would look at that,” Hunt said.

Blesener said the district would want to schedule community open houses starting in late August as an effort to inform the public about the referendum.

Bezek told the Star News that although the survey has closed, residents still have opportunities to share what they feel should be part of a vote on facility upgrades.

“There are still a number of venues to give input,” Bezek said. “We are always taking input.”

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