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With classes going on inside, supporters of a campaign to pass a $158 million school bond held a rally outside Lowell on Tuesday. “It’s time for a serious change,” Melanie Charlson of the Missoula Education Association told the crowd. “It’s our responsibility as taxpayers to provide that environment.”

Missoula voters who haven’t already can expect to get a phone call any day now from Invest in Missoula Schools, the volunteer-led group advocating for passage of two bond measures on this November’s ballot.

They’re encouraging registered voters to make sure to return their mail ballots to the Missoula County Elections Office by Nov. 3 – and to make sure to vote in support of the two bond requests for Missoula County Public Schools.

The two bonds – one for elementary district schools and the other for middle and high schools – add up to $158 million, and MCPS is counting on both bonds passing so it can finally address accumulating safety and security issues with some of its older buildings, fix a backlog of longstanding deferred maintenance, and bring the district’s technology up to modern standards. The bonds would also allow the district to increase capacity to accommodate a growing number of students. 

Invest in Missoula’s Schools counts more than 200 volunteers who believe strongly in the necessity of the bonds, and are putting their time, energy and money where their mouth is. They are canvassing neighborhoods, handing out information and answering questions at local events, and calling voters directly. And, in a significant departure from previous school campaigns, they are fundraising to pay for professional support.

So far the group has raised about $70,000 from private donations large and small, from companies to individuals. The money helps cover the cost of campaign materials and for the assistance of M+R Strategic Services, a consulting firm that specializes in helping nonprofits. The firm has offices located throughout the United States, including two in Montana, and has been involved in previous campaigns in Missoula, including the successful passage of a levy for Mountain Line and a bond for parks and trails last year.

The firm is helping Invest in Missoula Schools coordinate its dozens of volunteers, the majority of whom have little to no formal campaign experience, explains Susan Hay Patrick, who leads the group’s volunteer committee. Importantly, she noted, M+R provides expert assurance that they are meeting all filing deadlines and following all relevant campaign regulations.

It also:

• provided an early assessment of the campaign landscape;

• helped develop a campaign plan;

• handles outreach and communications, including social media like Facebook and Twitter and the yesformissoulaschools.org website;

• manages a database of donors and volunteers;

• helps plan, publicize and staff events, from house parties and concerts to pie and cake auctions;

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• prepares campaign materials such as fact sheets, yard signs and message cards; and,

• helps recruit and manage more than 200 volunteers;

Now that the focus has shifted to getting out the vote, Hay Patrick says, M+R is taking the lead with voter targeting, organizing canvassing and phone banking, advertising and direct mail. The firm is making sure that the effort to encourage support for the bonds is conducted in a way that maximizes the volunteer resources of Invest in Missoula Schools.

Some Missoulians may view the use professional campaign services as a disappointing development in local elections, but it’s clear that such services are increasingly employed because they have proven effective. That’s the way many successful campaigns are conducted these days, and the hundreds of supporters of the MCPS bond requests are doing their absolute best to ensure the campaign to pass them is successful.

Of course, we won’t know for sure whether this strategy will pay off until after all the votes are counted. However, if the sheer number of volunteers, endorsements and statements of support are any indication, it seems to be working.

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Missoulian editorial board: Publisher Mark Heintzelman, Editor Matt Bunk, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen.

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