Daniel Fox in Pioneer Press concerning “Target fixation”

Guest Essay in the Pioneer Press:

“Target fixation” helped in defeat for New Trier question

New Trier High School

April 1, 2010

By Daniel Fox

Piloting an armed helicopter in Vietnam, a college friend of mine died due to target fixation. Military pilots know the phenomenon well: Concentrating resolutely on delivering ordnance precisely on target, the psyche becomes so focused that other stimuli go unheeded. The aircraft is flown directly into the target. Something similar may have contributed to the defeat of the New Trier facilities referendum.

It took three years of work, but the New Trier facilities project was in near-final form. Together with the superintendent, the seven-member Board of Education had agreed on an ambitious project for the Winnetka campus. A field house, classrooms, cafeteria, art and music facilities, boiler room, roadwork, underground parking, landscaping and more were included. Architectural plans and color renderings were virtually complete. The last critical hurdle: Convince a majority of district voters to approve $174 million worth of tax-supported bonds. How difficult would it be?

A recent Freedom of Information Act request to the district yielded a research report that gauged the strength the headwinds. Before now, few had seen it, but this report is pivotal information for anyone studying how and why the referendum failed.

In April 2009, the Lisle, Illinois-based political polling firm, Fako & Associates, made a proposal to the district. Fako would conduct a “benchmark poll” which they defined as “a comprehensive quantitative survey that is the basis for your strategic plan.” They would interview 400 District voters by phone.

Product marketers and political candidates alike employ such quantitative research because large sample sizes, random selection of respondents, and standardized questioning help make results project table. Unlike focus groups with their free-flowing discussions, the Fako survey would quantify sentiment on the New Trier project. How voters evaluated priorities for the school, what messages might persuade them to favor the facilities plan, their response to the project’s cost, and the arguments for and against the plan would all be addressed.

The 29-page report delivered some strong positive findings. For example, both “top concerns” identified for the school registered just 11 percent. And significant majorities (from 60-83 percent) evaluated the district’s job performance very highly; believed the school’s teachers were excellent; believed a high-quality state-of-the-art school was important; and felt they received good value for their education-related tax dollars. But when it came to the facilities plan, voters were far less enamored.

In the document’s “strategic assessment and recommendations,” cautionary findings came one after another. Many voters saw no need: “Slightly more than half feel facilities improvements are not needed.” Strong opposition: “…the intensity of the opposition, however, is significantly stronger than that of supporters.” Opposition that only increased: “When residents discover the cost of the proposed facilities plan, we see a slight drop in support and a staggering increase in opposition,” and: “…we observe a significant erosion of support across all regions and demographics.” Finally, near the end of the report: “…the District faces a significant challenge to convince the residents that this plan is necessary, good and a prudent investment.” All this on top of arguably the study’s key measurement: Once aware of the facilities project, its cost and the arguments for and against it, 58 percent of voters opposed it.

In the document’s “strategic assessment and recommendations,” cautionary findings came one after another. Many voters saw no need: “Slightly more than half feel facilities improvements are not needed.” Strong opposition: “…the intensity of the opposition, however, is significantly stronger than that of supporters.” Opposition that only increased: “When residents discover the cost of the proposed facilities plan, we see a slight drop in support and a staggering increase in opposition,” and: “…we observe a significant erosion of support across all regions and demographics.” Finally, near the end of the report: “…the District faces a significant challenge to convince the residents that this plan is necessary, good and a prudent investment.” All this on top of arguably the study’s key measurement: Once aware of the facilities project, its cost and the arguments for and against it, 58 percent of voters opposed it.

The rest is history. On Nov. 19, the Board of Education voted unanimously to place the $174-million facilities plan on the ballot. Then on Feb. 2 it was voted down by 63 percent of the electorate, within the five-point margin-of-error the Fako people statistically predicted for their findings.

The most logical explanation — perhaps the only explanation — for how such obvious cautionary signals in the original Fako report were ignored is that district leadership succumbed to a referendum case of target fixation. The facilities plan was the product of three years of very hard work, of the passion of so many supporters, of well-meaning leaders and their best intentions for the high school. The pressure to keep pushing this plan must have been remarkably strong and self-reinforcing. In the end, it was also powerful enough to block out the flashing warning indicators, and fly the plan right into the ground.

Daniel Fox is a 25-year Winnetka resident. He spent a 30-year career at the Foote, Gone & Belding advertising agency where he was party to hundreds of market research efforts. He was also active in the “LoveNewTrierVoteNo” group that opposed the facilities referendum.

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