Mature Citizens Can Make or Break the Best of Plans

The scenario is familiar. A school district has been researching plans for expansion for years. Task forces have been commissioned, feasibility studies have been bought and paid for, and public discussion has taken on some substance. Next up, a plan for action needs to be established and executed that will include dedicated public meetings, zoning hearings, and of course, discussion at regular school board meetings.

Siting projects always meet some form of resistance, but depending on the place, the proposed project, and the local population, some forms of resistance are more formidable than others. Every now and then, a public project runs into an environmental issue or two when it comes to planning. And the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) folks are ever-present, but very often can be appeased if not satisfied with compromise and assurances that address specific concerns. But there’s another group who may often hold the most clout, who could stand in the way of that next high school expansion project or new elementary school — senior citizens.

Actually, while the core of this group actually are what we would traditionally consider senior citizens, many of the most active resistors to your plans may not yet be retired and would be better described as mature citizens or mature voters. What members of this constituency tend to have in common, however, are:
  • politically, they are more often than not the most active and powerful local voting block;
  • they own homes and pay taxes, which means they’ve been around and aren’t going anywhere anytime soon;
  • the majority of their children are beyond school age, so they’ve gotten what they wanted from the local school district; and
  • they now vote with their pocketbooks and are often single-issue voters, and that issue is taxation — the lower the better.

While these commonalities bring the mature voting block together, it would be folly to stereotype this group too much. Many 50-somethings are still working and are not ready for retirement, yet this is the age where large numbers do start to scale back and retire. Some are clearly living a comfortable life in retirement, while others are living on the bare minimum, with legitimate fears that the slightest tax increase could drive them from their homes. On most political issues, they are conservative, liberal, and everywhere in between. But on local issues involving the expenditure of school funds and related impact on tax rates, they have found common ground.

School boards are populated with a cross section of the community, with parents of kids in the school system on boards, sitting next to parents of kids who’ve gone through the system already. Because of its clout, the mature voting block has ample representation on the local school board. Add to this the fact that Baby Boomers are at or nearing retirement age. This group came of age with political activism and is no stranger to involvement in civic affairs and what it takes to get things done, or not done as the case may be.

According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), older voters tend to participate in elections at a higher rate than younger voters. In the last presidential election, the AARP reported that “70 percent of people aged 55-74, and 67 percent of people 75 and older” voted. This compared to 48 percent of voters under the age of 50.

Young families, the ones who depend most heavily on the local education system and who often pay the lion’s share of taxes in some communities, tend to be busy and uninformed and uninvolved in the local decision-making process. Moms may be active in the parent-teacher fundraisers, or Santa Breakfast events. And young dads may never miss coaching a Little League or soccer game, but ask them who their school board members are, and what’s happening with the future of the local school system, and you’re likely to get a blank stare. The only time they attend school board meetings is when you threaten to move a school bus stop, or take away a crossing guard or special program. Otherwise, as a political force, you don’t hear from them or see them. Time and again, their collective apathy is used against them, and they don’t know it.

There are many reasons the experts speculate as to why mature voters are more politically engaged. First, they tend to have more time to join church, community, and civic groups to become engaged in local affairs and get out to the polls on election day; while younger voters are busy trying to get their careers off the ground, buy and maintain their homes, and raise families. Second, mature voters have a slightly different motivation than their younger counterparts. As mentioned, many are on fixed or limited incomes and view tax increases as THE issue when it comes to local politics. Younger voters tend to accept steady increases in costs and taxes as a way of life, counting on raises, promotions, and bonuses to cover the difference.

A Strategy for Progress in the Face of Mature Voter Resistance
If this sounds familiar to you, then consider the following communications strategies for dealing with the likelihood that your next project could run into resistance from mature voters.

Do your homework up front — Yes, you conducted feasibility studies and know everything you need to know to actually build something, but make sure that your cost estimates have been thoroughly vetted and you have a sober understanding of how the proposed project will affect tax rates. Also, make sure you’ve complied with everything from federal and state laws, to local zoning variances. Local special interests have a way of finding the most obscure local regulation and using it to hand-tie an expansion process through tabling of motions for the classic reason of, “this issue requiring further study.” Then, work to minimize the impact on tax rates as much as possible through financing arrangements. From a communications standpoint, you want to be able to say you did everything possible to minimize the impact of the project on taxes, and have all of the answers when you need them.

Mobilize young families — Tap the power of PTO and PTA organizations, sports and activity booster organizations, and other groups. Educate young families constantly on what’s going on that could affect the quality of the schools, the system, and the facilities they use. Make sure these groups have their own committees dedicated to the monitoring and communication of local government and how it could affect them. Because they have the most at stake, these groups will be your strongest and most vocal allies when you need support to push a master plan through. Encourage them to communicate in their newsletters, on their Websites, and through blast e-mails to memberships. This group is very responsive to new media communications. Emphasize quality education, preservation of property values, and the need to attract more young families to contribute to a healthy tax base.

Maintain a proactive media relations program — Don’t wait for the media to call you about particular issues or plans, and don’t assume that media attendance at public meetings or the distribution of press releases and public notices will suffice. A concerted media outreach effort is required to make sure that individual reporters and editors understand the full extent of the issues involved, and the meaning of those issues that come to play in certain situations. Schedule specific and customized media briefings on issues to get them up to speed. If you do not maintain a proactive media relations effort, you allow the special interests to define the issues and set the tone for all media coverage, and you stand a higher chance of losing in the court of public opinion.

Do not meet opposition with neutrality — This is difficult for administrators who must follow certain laws, rules, and guidelines to ensure their own political neutrality in local governing. At the same time, opponents to the plans and visions of local administrators are not so encumbered. They can take a stand and do so emotionally and on whatever grounds they choose. Meanwhile, school district leadership works arduously to avoid taking a position on what has now become a political issue. This is where many projects are doomed. Savvy school district leaders know how to conduct public education efforts that make a strong case for their visions of the future of their school systems. And when certain positions in favor of that vision must be taken, they know how to tap their supporters on the school board and in the community.

These are just four strategies, but the bottom line is that for mature citizens, taxation can be a very emotional issue. When contemplating serious educational and facilities needs for years to come, the issues can be equally emotional, but only if the right people are aware of those issues and understand the urgent need to address them.
Tim O’Brien, APR, is an accredited public relations professional with 25 years of experience in the field. He is principal of O’Brien Communications in Pittsburgh, and can be reached at 412/954-8845 or at