Entrepreneur's advice: Tell what new school means to kids

Herschend outlines how to appeal to voters' emotions

Tapping into voters’ emotions offers the Jefferson City Public Schools its best shot at getting a proposed bond issue and levy increase passed.

Peter Herschend, owner of Silver Dollar City and president of the Missouri State Board of Education, met with a couple dozen supporters Tuesday morning in the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce board room. He said how they approach their audience is important. Voters are like customers whose respect must be earned, he said.

“You will very, very seldom convince anybody to do anything with a simple recitation of the facts, although you do have to have the facts,” he said.

He used Silver Dollar City’s new roller coaster, the Outlaw Run, as a metaphor. “I promise you I can give you all the data about board feet, engineering specs and how much it cost to build,” he said. But people will be more compelled to ride it — or avoid it — based on a photograph that conveys the gut-wrenching thrill induced by the wild ride, he said.

“It’s all right brain. It controls the left brain,” he said.

Herschend suggested one strategy to help explain the need for the additional tax revenues would be to showcase students who will benefit, such as a young teen who really does walk more than three miles to school daily, because that’s the district’s current policy, or a recent graduate who sees the value a career-academy will offer to the students who follow.

“I urge you to consider how, in the next three weeks, we can tell the stories of what this means to our kids,” he said. “You have to paint that dream and you don’t have many days to do it.”

He said one of the most successful campaigns in his home district was one that featured a female high school junior who asked voters: “Why is this such a big deal? The cost is less than a quarter-pounder with cheese a week.”

“That’s the kind of emotional appeal I’m talking about,” he said.

He also said safety issues are emotional. “All of us felt the pain of Newtown,” he said. “We can’t do anything about Newtown, but we all felt the pain. Still do. No voter, no parent, no grandparent — no one in this room — can stand the idea of an injury to a child in the Jefferson City district ... that we could have prevented,” he said. “We want to make sure that Newtown is a name that is never applied to Jefferson City.”

Herschend said a third of the voters are likely to support the bond issue and levy increase because they always support the schools. A third are probably neutral and a final third are unlikely to vote for it, no matter what argument is forwarded. “You’ve got to ensure that the first third turns out to vote,” he said.

He said the middle third could be persuaded to vote in favor of the tax increases, if their questions are addressed and if school leaders find a way to build a relationship with those voters. “They’ve got to hear an emotional appeal,” he said.

Herschend acknowledged that some observers will say his advice is “just manipulation.”

“Of course it is. So is all salesmanship,” he said. “The tragedies are the guys and gals who do not make it through high school. They are condemned to a life of poverty.”

Herschend said the district’s intention to create seven academies — each one devoted to a different career path — will do a good job of preparing the majority of students for the workforce. He noted in Springfield Ozarks Technical Community College and the public schools’ career technical programs have worked together to create a system that almost guarantees jobs to students in the local aircraft engineering maintenance industry.

Brenda Hatfield — a leader for the Citizens for Excellence in Education campaign that is supporting the bond issue and operating levy increase — said Herschend’s remarks validates the direction the district has decided to go.

Asked if three weeks is enough to act on Herschend’s advice, Debra Walker, Hatfield’s colleague on the campaign, said: “We’re going to try. We’re certainly inspired by his message, and encouraged by his remarks.”

On April 2 school district voters will be asked if they want to issue general obligation bonds — which would increase local taxes an additional 30 cents — and raise the operating tax levy by 25 cents. The 30-cent increase would generate a revenue stream that would allow the district to issue $79 million in bonds, money that would be used to finance a new high school east of Missouri 179 and a new elementary school on the city’s eastern end.

The 25-cent increase in the operating tax levy would generate an additional $2.5 million for the district, funding that would be used for transportation, security, technology and professional development.

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