Public Relations Tactics

A Teachable Moment: How Communicators Helped Save a Nevada School District in Need

November 1, 2017

Riley Sutton and Irene Payne
Riley Sutton and Irene Payne

In the summer of 2016, the Washoe County School District was struggling. Located in Reno, Nev., the district’s 93 schools were overcrowded, underfunded and badly in need of repairs.

At the same time, businesses were flocking to the region, bringing more families and students. Tesla, Panasonic and Switch were among many companies that had relocated there. Drawn by Reno’s climate, tax structure and affordable lifestyle, employees moved in and enrolled their children in local schools.

But while the business community thrived, the district’s schools — which serve 64,000 students and employ a staff of 8,000 — were still suffering from painful, lingering effects of the 2008 recession, which had hit the area hard. Relying mainly on property-tax revenue and bond sales to build and repair schools, the district was critically underfunded. Property taxes didn’t provide nearly enough money to fund construction of new schools or to repair the district’s old buildings.

At many school sites, boilers, floors and roofs were falling apart. One-third of the district’s schools had not been renovated or received major repairs in more than 30 years. Some hadn’t undergone such work for more than five decades. Maintenance personnel, whose budgets did not allow them to buy new equipment, were forced to patch and repair as best they could.

Students in packed schoolrooms dodged buckets on the floor filled with rain and snowmelt that dripped from leaky ceilings. When heaters broke down, children wore coats in their classrooms.

“I’ll never forget when I visited one of our elementary schools on a rainy day at the beginning of the 2016–17 school year,” said Traci Davis, the district’s superintendent. “There was water coming through the ceiling, right into the classroom where the students were trying to do their work. One of our youngest kids looked up at me, pointed to the leak, and asked why the ceiling was crying. It just broke my heart.”

‘Training the trainers’ to convey accurate information

To address ongoing problems with the schools, an independent citizen’s group formed by the Nevada Legislature decided to place a question on the November 2016 ballot. Known as “WC-1,” the measure would increase the sales tax by a half-percent and raise more than $780 million in the next decade to repair aging schools and build new ones. With WC-1 on the ballot, it was imperative that prospective voters receive accurate information about how the measure’s passage or failure would affect the district and its students.

But another challenge loomed: Under Nevada state law, the district could not publicly advocate or oppose any such measure — only talk to the public about the situation in its schools.

“We needed to find a way to convey accurate, truthful information about the challenges our district was facing,” said Irene Payne, Washoe County School District’s chief communications and community-engagement officer. “Our team discussed ways in which we could accomplish this without even the tiniest hint of impropriety, without any mention of the pending question on the ballot, because so much was riding on our efforts to spread the word about the situation our students and staff were facing in our schools every day.”

For years, the district had tried to find funding. A bill went before the legislature in 2007, and a question was placed on the ballot in 2008. In 2013, still more legislation failed. In a last-ditch effort to gain funding, Payne and her team enlisted the help of dozens of the district’s administrative staff members, who attended training sessions and were given PowerPoint presentations and scripts. Each team of two administrators — which included department leaders, office staff, executive assistants and communications people — visited every one of the district’s 93 schools and more than a dozen of its office buildings to make presentations.

“We decided to ‘train the trainers,’” Payne said. “We felt they represented our best chance for spreading information to our staff members and the community at large.”

Instructed not to deviate from the presentation script, every team delivered identical messages, covering a brief history of the district’s attempts to secure funding, the current condition of its schools and options being considered should the ballot measure fail.

Trainers were stunned to learn that most school staff didn’t know the district was seriously considering placing its most overcrowded high schools on “double sessions,” wherein half the students would attend classes from 6 a.m. to noon, the other half from noon to 6 p.m.

Another option to ease overcrowding might see four elementary schools, and possibly more, placed indefinitely on multi-track, year-round schedules. Under this scenario, students would receive 60 days of instruction followed by 20 days of vacation throughout the year, rather than nine months of school and three months of summer break. The student body would be divided into alternating “tracks” of classes.

In their presentations, the trainers communicated what school district employees could and could not do under the law with respect to the ballot measure. On their own time and their own property, for instance, employees could advocate or oppose the measure and put up campaign signs. But during work hours they were not allowed to discuss the merits of the measure or engage in any campaigning for or against it.

As the trainers made their rounds, communications staff held town hall meetings, built websites showing photos of overcrowded and crumbling schools, and invited reporters to tour school sites most in need of work.

At the same time, people in the community were promoting passage of the ballot measure. In March 2016, a group called the “Save Our Schools (SOS) Committee” conducted a phone poll which showed that 45 percent of the Reno public supported the measure. By September, those in favor had jumped to 55 percent.

Proving that hard work pays off

On Nov. 8, 2016, with 58 percent of the vote in Washoe County, the ballot measure passed. For the first time in more than a decade, the district could make urgently needed repairs to schools, launch plans to build a 22-classroom expansion at its most overcrowded high school, and explore sites across the community where new schools could be built.

“We celebrate our children and our staff members every day in the Washoe County School District,” said Davis. “And now we are able to celebrate their hard work in schools that are worthy of their efforts, in learning conditions that will allow them to thrive.”

“This effort was unlike anything we had ever tried before,” Payne said. “On the surface, it was simple: We did what we knew best and educated our community about our challenges, answered their questions, and took them straight into our schools to see what our students and staff were facing every day. We were grateful that our hard work paid off for all of our children at every stage of their educational journeys, from pre-kindergarten through their walks across the high school graduation stage.”
 

Victoria Campbell

Victoria Campbell has served as public information officer for Washoe County School District since 2012. She was previously a television reporter for the NBC affiliate in Reno, Nev.

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