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NJ: District scores with professional communications

When officials of Lenape Regional High School District (LRHSD) in Shamong, N.J., went to bat for a three-part referendum that took place March 8, 2005, they didn’t carry the day, but scored a major accomplishment by winning approval for much-needed upgrades to their aging high schools.

District characteristics
Name: Lenape Regional High School SD
State: NJ
Type: Suburban
Grades: 9–12
Enrollment: 7,008
Students per teacher:  13.3

Enrollment characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: 1.8%
English language learners: n.a.
Students with disabilities: n.a.
White: 88.9%
Black: 4.4%
Hispanic: 3.3%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 4.0%
American Indian/Alaska Native: 0.5%
Other: n.a.
Source: SchoolMatters.com

The upgrades, part one of the referendum, passed by a solid margin of 9,303 to 6,688. To prepare for the referendum, the district’s school board brought in some heavy hitters. LRHSD hired a private firm, IE Communications, that specializes in working with school districts. The firm had run about 50 referendum campaigns throughout New Jersey and had only lost one, which took place in Northern New Jersey shortly after September 11, 2001.

In the aftermath of the last referendum, the Lenape school board was criticized for not adequately informing citizens about the measure despite board members’ outreach through numerous public meetings. "As a board, we did not want this [misunderstanding about how information was communicated] to happen again," said John Jeffers, president of the LRHSD school board.

Also, for part one, voters’ approval was necessary to qualify the school district for a state grant of $34.3 million, which will cover 33 percent of the project.

"The Lenape district is 354 square miles and encompasses eight municipalities," Jeffers explained. "The challenge of communicating to 145,000 constituents both the critical need for upgrades and the extraordinary opportunity to have the state pay for one-third of the cost, was a daunting task. It is not a job that a one-woman public information office or an already overextended school administration can realistically do on their own."

Part two, which would have funded air conditioning for four high schools, failed by a narrow margin of ,7401 votes to 8,556 votes. Part three, which would have added a swimming complex to Lenape High School, failed by a large margin, 5,563 votes to 10,344.

Pat Milich, the district’s director of public information, suggested that with their votes on parts two and three, citizens "demonstrated their frustration over rising property taxes due to an unfair school state aid formula, not their disagreement over the [school district’s] needs."

Voters responded to the message that the high schools, each at least 30 years old, "were in desperate need of upgrades" to make them safe, secure, and educationally sound facilities and to relieve crowding in the fast-growing district, Jeffers said.

IE Communications took a four-pronged approach to reaching district voters: research, publicity, media and community relations, and communications training for school board members and district personnel.

The firm helped board members and district officials communicate consistently on the issues by counseling them on effective public outreach and by creating a Powerpoint presentation for use at public meetings throughout the district.

The firm produced an informational video to distribute to television stations and for meetings in smaller settings. IE Communications also produced and disseminated newsletters, flyers, signs, information boards, and numerous other communication tools for the district. A question-and-answer sheet was released a few days before the vote.

According to Jeffers, the experience taught the LRHSD school board the importance of seeking professional help to get out the facts and educate the public. "The stakes are high, especially when the health, safety and security of young people are at stake," he said.

Visit the Lenape Regional High School District web site for more information about the district's programs.

Lessons learned
  • When a referendum is on the ballot, it’s essential to get the facts out to the public through multiple communication vehicles and channels.
  • If you hire a communications firm for help, find one that has a proven record of success and experience with public education.
  • Remember that high-quality, understandable writing, design, and graphics are key components of all communications.
  • Meet the information needs of all stakeholders: students, parents, empty nesters, senior citizens. Do not overlook any communities or populations.
  • Identify messages that resonate with the community. For example, polls conducted by IE Communications for the Lenape school district found citizens responded more positively to air conditioning schools as a health issue (such as helping to prevent asthma attacks) than a comfort issue.


Pat Milich
Lenape Regional High School District
Director of Public Information
93 Willow Grove Road
Shamong, NJ 08088
Phone: (609) 268-2000, ext. 5520
Email: pmilich@lrhsd.org

Posted: January 28, 2005

©2005 Center for Public Education

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