BLDD Architects
bond issue march 2021

Planning for a successful school bond referendum

March 1, 2021
Insights for planning and winning a bond election.

School bond referendums provide the dollars that districts need to build facilities that support their educational objectives. Whether the goal is to build state-of-the-art learning environments or update aging facilities, bond elections are critical to the success of many K-12 school systems.

Passing a school bond referendum is challenging at any time. However, with potential budget deficits looming because of the Covid-19 pandemic, it could become a much harder sell to voters.

Here are issues that administrators and stakeholders should have in mind to improve the chances that a bond issue will win approval.

Identify the “Sweet Spot”

Timing is everything, and that is very much the case for school bond referendums. There is a “sweet spot” of about two years between when a district is scheduled to pay off existing bond debt and when the district should consider a new bond request.

This two-year window is the time to begin engaging the community regarding upcoming needs.

By timing a new bond referendum just before the old one expires, the tax rate will remain stable. If the existing bond is allowed to expire before voters approve an extension, taxpayers may not react well when a subsequent bond issue causes tax levies to climb back to previous levels. They may remember only the increase and not the earlier decrease.

Start with why

Many bond proposals begin with a district-wide facility assessment or a project-specific feasibility study. The efforts often focus on what: A building is falling apart and needs upgrades that will cost x dollars, or a new school is needed to accommodate enrollment growth.

Instead, focus on why a need exists. To win voter approval, school leaders should concentrate their argument on how improvements will enhance conditions for students and teachers in the classroom. Data and logic are important when it comes to fiscal planning, but voters are people, not calculators. Studies show that people make decisions based on emotion and then look for facts to back up their feelings. Starting with the why—kids!—capitalizes on this universal human condition.

Real community engagement

Community members aren’t very different from students in classrooms. They get the most out of experiences in which they play an active role. The best engagement efforts capitalize on that and put the community in the driver’s seat.

An effective community meeting is much like a lesson plan. It starts with a large group presentation by a school district’s team of experts. This gives community members an opportunity to learn something new about educational delivery and the district’s building needs. Then participants work in small groups to develop solutions. Meetings should finish with the smaller groups reporting their outcomes to the larger group; all those involved get a collective picture, but they also feel as if they contributed.

This method works to develop engagement better than typical town hall meetings with constituents who may be angry, or open houses where voters react to decisions that already have been made.

Not your parents’ school

One challenge for bond planners is winning over community members who feel confident they know what should be in a school facility based on their own experience and memories.

They might say, “I went to school here in the 1960s, and it was fine for me; why do we have to update it?” These individuals may not understand how much technology has transformed educational delivery. It’s up to today’s education leaders to show them the differences.

Use interactive methods at community input sessions. Building or virtual tours with teacher docents are effective, as is having participants take an online quiz to identify their personal learning styles and how they might learn best. This exercise helps stakeholders understand that education methods have changed and that more effective ways of educating students are needed.

Underlying issues

Members of the community may have underlying issues that district leaders should address early in order to win support for a referendum. Community engagement is the perfect place to do this.

Some engagement techniques:

Assessing likes and dislikes: Share ideas and let people react without asking more pointed questions. By assessing general likes and dislikes in a general format, bond planners can quickly identify the issues that are important to the majority of people.

Asking qualitative questions: Another way to gather the same information is to ask, “What do you like about our schools currently? What do we do well?” and, likewise, “Where could we improve?” Another good question is “How do you wish people would describe the facilities?”

•Word cloud. A word cloud is a visual representation of key opinions. It tracks how many times certain words—“outdated,” e.g.—are used; the words most often used appear larger. When the commonalities have been established, it is easier to show that everyone involved is on the same page in terms of community improvement and the vision to pursue.

Shopping spree: Hold a “shopping spree” in which people are given a budget and different spending priorities: technology, athletics, fine arts, etc. Participants have to prioritize how to allocate funds.

•Heat maps: Heat maps also may help community members identify the greatest needs. Students and teachers tell them which parts of a school are their most and least favorite. If a district finds out that people dislike 80% of a building, it has a high need.

•Opinion poll. School districts sometimes feel their community engagement processes involve too few people to constitute a representative sample, so planners also conduct public opinion polls that ask how a district is perceived, or the community’s tax priorities. This gives a district a wider range of input that could help administrators determine which proposals will generate the least resistance.

All of these engagement techniques help get to the root of what the community wants and needs and what people will support in a referendum. Listening to stakeholders and incorporating feedback ensures that a bond proposal reflects both the community’s physical building requirements and their aspirational goals. Including stakeholders in the process also gives them ownership of the plan, which makes them more likely to be key allies in a bond campaign.

How to listen

Superintendents should develop and maintain strong relationships with their staff, civic groups and key business owners throughout the process.

A steering committee made up of teachers, administrators, board members and community leaders is invaluable to guide the overall direction of a bond proposal and make a final recommendation to the board after the engagement process. A range of perspectives is important.

Many community voices are great, but they all can’t be heard at the same time. Avoid “town-hall” type meeting formats, and instead engage in small group discussions and answer sessions that result in actionable consensus. The goal is not to get everyone to agree, but to identify what the most people can embrace.

Use technology to reach community members who are unable to attend meetings in person. Tools like live social media feeds, informal surveys, and statistically significant public opinion polls give districts a wider range of valuable data.

It takes tremendous commitment from a diverse group of people to mount and win a school bond referendum campaign. But the key to the process is listening to those many voices and identifying the goal that will resonate strongest.

Path to victory

By the time a bond referendum is put before voters, it may have gone through years of planning, strategizing, and communicating to the public. The benefits of the approach outlined above enable constituents to clearly understand the problem and the needs that the bond referendum addresses. As a result, they feel ownership and want to be part of the solution.

The process provides clarity and gives a school board confidence in its decision making.

And finally, by engaging the entire community in the process, districts can energize an army of volunteers passionate about supporting and winning approval of a bond request.

Sidebar: Billions in Bonds

Even though the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted operations for thousands of school systems across the nation, many districts decided they could not put their long-range needs on the back burner. Despite the uncertain economic outlook, they pressed forward with bond and tax elections that will provide the money to address critical facility needs.

Here are funding requests of more than $1 billion that voters approved in November 2020:

•The Los Angeles Unified School District won approval of a $7 billion proposal that will enable the nation’s second-largest school district to upgrade aging facilities; over 70% of school buildings in the district are more than 50 years old, officials said.

•The Dallas (Texas) Independent School District won approval of bond requests exceeding $3.5 billion. Voters backed only two of the district’s five ballot questions, but those two accounted for the lion’s share of the overall $3.7 billion proposal. More than $1.1 billion is earmarked for new and replacement campuses; funds also are allocated for upgrading school infrastructure and enhancing technology.

•The Duval County (Fla.) district, based in Jacksonville, won approval of a half-cent sales tax proposal that will provide $1.9 billion over 15 years. The revenue will pay for construction of 19 elementary schools, three high schools, security and technology enhancements, and infrastructure repairs.

•The San Antonio (Texas) Independent School District won approval of a $1.3 billion bond package. The funds will pay for renovations at 36 district campuses and technology upgrades.

•The Portland (Ore.) district won approval of a $1.2 billion bond proposal. It will pay for upgrades of several high school campuses and the creation of a Center for Black Student Excellence. Other funds will be allocated for technology improvements, health and safety enhancements, and other renovations.

About the Author

Jessica Whitlock | Senior Associate and Director of Marketing

Whitlock is a Senior Associate and Director of Marketing with BLDD Architects, Decatur, Ill.

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