The Subtle Stuff

It's hard to win passage of a school construction bond — whether through a citizen referendum or the vote of a town council or general town meeting. Property owners' resistance to tax increases remains strong. Sizable segments of any local community — senior citizens, childless adults, parents who send their children to private school, and others — tend to see public school construction projects as unrelated to their own interests; it can be difficult to win them over.

To overcome the hurdles that school bond proposals face and mount a successful school-bond campaign, districts have many strategies available — energizing potential “yes” voters; crafting memorable campaign messages; cultivating good relationships with local media; timing votes to suppress potential “no”-voter turnout; reaching out to senior citizens; and even ensuring that high school students of voting age make it to the polls.

All are good ideas, and such strategizing is recommended, but the success of a school construction bond may hinge on more subtle issues — a set of behind-the-scenes factors that are hard to quantify, anticipate and control. It's essential to attend to these factors when putting together a school construction proposal and bond-issue campaign.

The tipping point

In his book The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell explored the moment in any endeavor when forces converge that either will propel a project toward success or doom it to defeat. The tipping point in a school construction project often occurs at a stage much earlier than most might imagine.

Referendum campaign strategists often focus much of their attention on shaping the campaign itself — and even on the final days leading up to the vote. This could be a backward approach. It is important to map out a campaign as carefully as possible to get “yes” voters to the polls. But often, it's what happens at the beginning of the process that decides whether a school construction bond will succeed. The voting history of a district and its precise demographics — though significant — aren't necessarily determinative. The following factors are much more important considerations:

  • The amount of money appropriated upfront to support development of a school construction proposal.

  • Having an architect (and perhaps a construction manager) who will assess a district's needs, help create a proposal and participate in a campaign.

  • The personality, attitude and reputation of the district superintendent and the school board.

  • Recruiting and cultivating the community leaders that will spearhead the bond campaign.

The money

Municipal governments and school boards may be reluctant to provide adequate funding for assessing needs and preparing school construction proposals — municipal budgets usually are tight, and a proposed project may never get off the ground. But the process often works in a way that is downright peculiar.

Most districts are cognizant of the need for an architectural consultant, so they issue RFPs for facility needs assessments and construction proposals (including participation in the campaign once a proposal has been created). Architecture firms compete for these jobs despite the fact that they might not be able to cover their basic costs with the fee they will receive. (A reasonable fee for a needs study might be $80,000, and it isn't unusual for a school board to offer about $10,000.)

Why are architects so eager to take on unprofitable work? By conducting the study and creating the proposal (which usually involves a significant amount of design work), an architecture firm will be in a favorable position to get the job of actually designing the resulting project — if the bond vote to pay for the project passes.

Someone in favor of this approach might argue that because an architectural firm has such a sizable stake in the outcome, it will do its best work in creating a proposal and making presentations in the time leading up to a vote. But others might contend that when an architecture firm is not compensated adequately for its preliminary work, it might be tempted to create a design that's self-serving — one that has a scope that exceeds the district's actual needs, but will ensure the firm more than recoups its initial investment. What seems clear is that the process, as it's ordinarily structured, contains an inherent conflict of interest for the architect.

The typical process raises other concerns. In every community, there are some citizens who are suspicious of architects. They believe that many architects are more interested in creating a pricey monument — “a Taj Mahal” — than in designing a facility that economically addresses a district's needs. As it's structured, the typical process might foster that impression, especially if an architect's role in community presentations is not delineated carefully and performed expertly.

What might serve a community better is a two-step process in which the firm conducting the study and crafting the proposal receives fair compensation and then competes on equal footing with other firms for the design portion of the job.

Adequately funding the preliminary stages of a school construction proposal can benefit the project in another way: it may enable a district to hire a construction manager that can work with the architect to control a project's costs. The manager can serve as the architect's foil — a kind of cost-conscious “bad cop.” CMs can address operational costs, life-cycle costs, inflation in building materials prices and labor costs. Having a CM on board from the start can lend much-needed fiscal credibility to a construction proposal, and in a close contest, credibility can give a bond proposal's supporters a crucial edge.

The architect

Selecting an architect to conduct an initial needs review or craft a school construction proposal is critical. The architect chosen for this preliminary work is likely to be the architect that ultimately will draft the actual design. Sometimes a discrepancy exists between an architecture firm's “sex appeal” — its mastery of the art of salesmanship — and its ability to do the job.

Each quality is important, but the two have to be balanced carefully. Marketing savvy is crucial in a bond-issue campaign, so often the choice of an architecture firm is based at least partly on its ability to put together and deliver effective presentations. But if a firm's marketing skills aren't complemented by evidence that it can deliver a project on time and within budget, the district may be in for trouble down the road.

What's more, if an architect's reputation is questionable or problematic, it can hurt a bond campaign. If an architect has struggled with budgets, schedules or design quality on previous projects, it could become a campaign issue. So a district must thoroughly and completely investigate all firms before selecting one. District administrators should interview officials from other school systems that have worked with these firms. Good people skills are not sufficient criteria for choosing an architect.

The superintendent

Some superintendents are realists; some are dreamers. Some are knowledgeable about school construction, and others have no clue. There's nothing wrong with being an educational visionary, but unless a superintendent's dreams are matched by an understanding of what constituents will accept and what the district can afford, a school bond proposal is likely to go down in flames.

When consultants are presented with an educational specification that promises the moon, stars and even some distant galaxies, they may have mixed emotions. On one hand, they may feel elated. Who wouldn't want to work on a project like that? On the other hand, they may be wary, especially if it seems that the superintendent will be an adamant, uncompromising, and perhaps ill-informed champion of the vision.

Winning passage of a school construction bond usually involves compromise. Districts must decide which elements of a proposed project are essential and which can be set aside (or value-engineered to make them less costly). Even the enthusiasm of futurists for instructional innovation and advanced technology is tempered by knowledge that few far-reaching and future-oriented public schools actually get built. When superintendents honestly acknowledge the economic and political realities, it increases the likelihood that a bond campaign will succeed.

Presenting a united front on the part of the school board, district staff and faculty, and all the “yes”-voter stakeholders is an essential component in passing a school bond; dissension can spell disaster. Large-scale school construction projects should not be contemplated in districts where the relationship between a superintendent and the staff is fractured. (There might be a chance of success if a superintendent turns the leadership role on the project over to a well-liked assistant superintendent or business manager.)

The community leader

A community leader recruited to spearhead a school construction bond campaign should be well-known and well-respected, have the time and energy to devote to a lengthy and arduous undertaking, have the intellectual capacity and curiosity to learn about the complexities of the architectural and construction process, and have superlative “people skills” — someone who is friendly, a good listener and a good talker.

Two more subtle aspects desired in a community leader's personality are the ability to quickly forge a collaborative role with the architect and the instinct of knowing when to speak and when to keep quiet. (Architectural consultants need the same set of attributes.)

Why are these qualities so critical? The campaign to pass a school construction bond usually involves many “command performances” — presentations before community groups and local government agencies in which the architect and the community leader often play leading roles. It's impossible to perfectly script these appearances in advance. But effort can be made to make sure all of those presenting information know precisely what their roles are and that none of them hogs the stage.

To produce a presentation that gets good reviews — that improves a bond's chances of passage — the community leader, the architect and the CM should stay within their own areas of expertise: the architect to issues regarding programming and design, the community leader to those concerning project financing and the project's specific effects on the community, and the CM to constructability and cost issues. They defer to one another when fielding questions from the audience. For example, if a question has two prongs — one architectural and the other economic — they take turns answering. And they all know not to say too much.

All should adhere to the No. 1 rule of public presentations: Keep it simple. That does not mean being dishonest, evasive or vague. It means saying what needs to be said in a way that is as concise, clear and brief as possible. It means not overcomplicating matters by going into details that the public is unlikely to understand — or that elicit additional questions. And, it means presenters should avoid the temptation of discussing issues that they don't understand.

Clarity and simplicity are a bond proposal's friends. Complexity, confusion and unnecessary verbiage are its enemies. Many bond-campaign strategists have stressed the importance of crafting simple and memorable campaign messages. This principle should be extended to the on-stage performances of the community leader, architect and the CM.

The odds may be stacked against a school bond's passage, but this is no reason to be pessimistic; pessimism can be fatal to a campaign. But it is reason to pay scrupulous attention to the subtle issues when putting together a school construction proposal and bond campaign.

Nagardeolekar, AIA, is a project manager and senior associate with Fletcher-Thompson, Inc., Hartford, Conn. Merritt is director of educational planning and research for the firm, and works out of its Shelton, Conn. office.

NOTABLE

$10,000

Amount that a school board might offer for a construction bond needs study, when in reality it might cost the architect $80,000 to produce.

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