WHEATON, Ill. – When voters reject a proposed tax increase for schools, district officials generally respond in one of two ways.

puppet_337x244Some school leaders respect the voters’ decision and carry out their duties the best they can without the additional revenue. Others, however, refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer and look for ways to wear down taxpayers in advance of another referendum vote.

Illinois taxpayer Mary Ann Vitone says leaders in her district – Wheaton Warrenville Community Unit School District 200 (CUSD 200) – have chosen the latter option after voters last spring overwhelmingly turned down a request for $17.6 million in additional tax revenue to build a new early childhood center.

And Vitone believes CUSD 200 leaders are attempting to manipulate voters through the use of a controversial communications strategy known as the Delphi Technique.

According to various sources, the Delphi Technique works something like this:

Officials representing a school district (or some other government body) hold a community meeting to gather input from citizens about which policies the district should pursue. But instead of seeking genuine feedback, district leaders manipulate the discussion so citizens end up “recommending” the very policies that the leaders wanted originally.

After the input meeting, district leaders take the recommended plan of action – created  through audience manipulation – and put it on the ballot. The leaders effectively tell voters, “The community thinks we should proceed with that special building project (or tax increase, etc.), and anyone who disagrees with it is out-of-step with the majority.”

There are two premises behind the Delphi Technique, which – according to Wikipedia – is a communication technique that was developed during the Cold War.

The first is that many non-ideological Americans make their voting decisions based on what they think the majority supports. If their friends and neighbors all seem to be in favor of a something (a school tax increase, for example), they will probably support it too, just to be on the “winning team.”

This explains why political candidates and special interest groups work so hard to plant yard signs throughout a community just before an election. They’re trying to create a perception of majority support.

The second premise behind the Delphi Technique is that people are more likely to support a proposal if they feel a sense of ownership for it.

Education researcher Lynn Stuter explains: “If people believe an idea is theirs, they’ll support it. If they believe an idea is being forced on them, they’ll resist.”

Vitone tells EAGnews that CUSD 200 leaders appear to be following the Delphi Technique to the letter. The school district just completed the fourth of six scheduled “community engagement” sessions in which taxpayers are being asked to help develop a “vision” for the district.

The final input session will be held in June, after which the various community recommendations will be put in a report and presented to CUSD 200 school board members.

While it’s too early to know what the school board will do with the community’s “input,” Vitone believes they will use it to re-introduce the $17.6 million tax increase proposal to voters in the near future.

Controlling discussions by limiting choices

Admittedly, any talk about a secret strategy to manipulate voters is bound to sound like a conspiracy theory. But numerous Americans say they have experienced the Delphi Technique firsthand, which suggests there’s something to their claims.

Vitone and other critics agree that the community input sessions are key to the strategy’s success. Those sessions must produce the desired results so district officials can sell their ideas as the community’s ideas.

To pull that off, district officials often hire outside consultants to manage the meetings.

That happened in Vitone’s district. Last November, the CUSD 200 school board agreed to a $49,500 contract with Unicom Arc, a St. Louis-based “communications solutions” group.

The Chicago Tribune reports that Unicom Arc officials are working with a team of specially chosen citizen leaders who are helping run the six community engagement sessions.

Vitone, who has attended every meeting so far, believes Unicom Arc officials are operating the forums according to Delphi Technique practices.

Here’s what happens, according to Vitone:

Attendees are handed a number that corresponds to one of the numerous tables in the room. Audience members are instructed to sit at the assigned table. Greeters at the door ensure that people entering together sit at different tables.

Citizens are told this is done to ensure “diversity” in the ensuing group conversation. Delphi critics say it’s done to neutralize opposition. The reality of group dynamics is that many people are reluctant to fully and forcefully express their opinions when they’re with a group of strangers. That works to the benefit of the meeting organizers, as will be obvious shortly.

The moderator gives a short introduction and the district staff does a short presentation giving background to the evening’s topic. The moderator then gives the groups a specific question to discuss – for example, “What is the biggest challenge facing the district?” Citizens are explicitly instructed to stay on topic and to write down only those answers that have majority support from the members.

Here’s where the trickery comes into play, according to Delphi critics.

To ensure that the discussion moves in a way that’s favorable to the district leaders’ interests, each group has one or more members who are officially connected to the district in some way. The “insiders,” as Vitone calls them, can include principals, teachers, school boosters, administrators, teacher aides, secretaries, spouses of school board members, local politicians and even contractors who work for the district.

Critics contend the “insiders” receive training on how to direct the group’s conversation toward the district’s favored goals, such as why a new early childhood center is urgently needed.

Vitone believes the “insiders” are also trained to marginalize outspoken citizens who oppose the district’s favored outcome. She says this is done by telling the free-thinking taxpayer to stay on topic and follow the moderator’s rules, or by challenging the accuracy of that person’s assertions.

Remember, few people are willing to speak their minds amid a group of strangers. Fewer still are willing to flout the meeting “rules” that have been established by the Delphi-trained moderator. That diminishes the likelihood such pressure tactics will be necessary.

Once the carefully controlled conversation is over, the moderator goes around to each table with a microphone and asks what the group’s consensus was about the question, according to Vitone.

“Controlling the discussion (by) controlling the tables is the goal,” she says.

If things go as planned, when the moderator compiles the consensus answers from each group, the community “input” will look very similar to the district’s desired outcome.

And if some citizens complain when the district puts a once-defeated tax referendum (for example) on the ballot, district leaders can reply that they’re simply doing what the community requested.

School officials and their supporters may even flood the local newspaper with op-eds that characterize dissenters as being outside the mainstream of community thought. They may even be portrayed as opponents of public education who don’t care about children.

“Ordinary folks are at such a disadvantage,” Vitone says.

Citizens can counter the manipulation

The Delphi Technique is a very crafty strategy, but there are a few steps citizens can take to negate its impact.

The biggest thing they can do is to become aware of the manipulation and to tell their friends and neighbors about what to look for.

Citizens who think they’re being “played” should also exercise a little spunk and refuse to meekly follow the moderator’s “sit with people you don’t know” seating instructions. This will allow citizens to make sure their group’s discussion is really about what the citizens want, instead of what the “insider” wants.

Various bloggers who’ve written about the Delphi Technique also emphasize that citizens should never become angry at how they’re being treated. Anger simply helps the Delphi-trained manipulators to marginalize them and their point of view.

Vitone has been spreading the word in her school district and says people are starting to understand how they’re being played.

“I tell people to look up the Delphi Technique, and when they do, it’s like a light bulb goes off,” she says.

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