Planning for the polls: insights for successfully navigating a bond referendum

Is your school district PLANNING FOR THE POLLS?

School bond referendums provide the dollars that districts need for facilities that support their educational objectives. 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 much more difficult. Here are three insights for successfully navigating a bond referendum.

Identify the “sweet spot” (timing is everything)

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 your 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 won’t appreciate a new bond that raises tax levies back to previous levels. They may remember only the increase and not the earlier decrease.

Start with WHY (focus on why a need exists)

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 public approval, an argument focused on how improvements will affect students and teachers in the classroom is key. Data and logic are important when it comes to fiscal planning, but voters are people, not calculators.  Studies show that we make decisions based on emotion and then look for facts to back up our feelings.  Starting with your why (kids!) capitalizes on this universal human condition.

Real community engagement (put the community in the driver’s seat)

Speaking of the human condition, community members aren’t very different from your students in classrooms.  They get the most out of experiences that they are actively involved in.  The best engagement efforts capitalize on that and put the community in the driver’s seat. 

An effective community meeting is much like a a great lesson plan.  It starts with large group presentation by your team of experts, giving people an opportunity to learn something new about educational delivery and your building challenges.  With those challenges in hand, they work in small groups to develop solutions together.  Meetings should finish up with the groups reporting their outcomes to the larger group so everyone gets a collective picture, but also feel like they contributed. 

It’s easy to see how this method works to develop engagement better than typical town hall meetings with angry constituents, or open houses where voters only react to decision that have already been made. 

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. If you would like to learn more about how your district can PLAN FOR THE POLLS, contact us today!

Jessica Whitlock,
Senior Associate
BLDD Architects, Inc.

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