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Key Insights from a Successful Bond Issue Election: Fort Calhoun Community Schools Case Study

by George Schuler
If your district is investigating a bond issue election, it’s likely that you’ve heard quite a bit about best practices. Every community is different and there are several ways to approach an election. For the purposes of this article, I’d like to focus on the recent successful bond issue election in Fort Calhoun. There were several key influences that may prove to be helpful to your district.

Gaining Perspective, Buy In & Support

There are likely several underlying factors driving your need to improve facilities. To complicate matters, there may be many different perspectives and opinions regarding what’s most important and why. In the case of Fort Calhoun, the Board and Administration thought it would be best to enlist the help of a professional team to investigate facilities-related challenges and opportunities at their JR/SR High School building.

They selected an architectural firm to conduct a thorough facilities assessment and to present their findings. The Board and Administration believed that something needed to be done, but they wanted insight from the community on how best to address their facilities challenges. They reached out to a broad cross-section of community members and invited them to weigh in on the conversation. This diverse group of potential supporters and skeptics became known as the Facilities Planning Committee and helped the Board and Administration gain a more balanced perspective of what was most important to the community and why.

The Committee members were invited to tour the building and were provided with an overview of the findings of the facilities assessment. In the meantime, the Board and Administration selected a construction management firm to work collaboratively with their architect. As the Committee began to zero in on key needs, several potential solution options were developed. As these solution options were refined, the construction manager provided information regarding cost, schedule, constructability and phasing to help the committee weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each option.


Going Public

The Committee participated in a series of meetings over five months and weighed in on options ranging from a minimal renovation to a brand new building. The Committee proposed a preliminary recommendation to the Board, which was taken to a series of public meetings to gain feedback. Based on the response from the public meetings, the Committee decided to make a formal recommendation to the Board.

By this time, the Board had an excellent understanding of the recommended solution option and a balanced perspective of what was most important to the community and why. They were able to move forward confidently and unanimously approve a resolution calling for a bond issue election to finance the renovations and additions to their JR/SR High School building.

From early on in the process, the Board and Administration wanted to provide an unbiased source of factual information to help voters make an informed decision and to combat misinformation. A website was launched at the latter stages of the planning effort and updated regularly prior to the election to accomplish this objective. The website included information about the planning process, existing facilities and the recommended solution option as well as general information about the school district. Patrons were able to review frequently asked questions and could submit a question directly to the District.

This process really builds upon itself. As you can imagine, the time and effort invested during the Facilities Assessment and Planning Committee phases produced multiple benefits. Ensuring that the Board moved forward unanimously and that they could provide unbiased factual information to Patrons about the due diligence process were key ingredients to their successful bond issue election.



From Facilities Planning Committee to Campaign Committee

Ideally, you would hope that a group of supporters would organize out of the Facilities Planning Committee to carry the message to the voters. Fort Calhoun is a textbook case of how impactful a group like this can be. A Campaign Committee did organize, many were members of the Facilities Planning Committee, and they were very well educated about the recommended solution option. They understood the planning process and the importance of specific design and construction strategies and were able to communicate them very effectively.

The Campaign Committee was very strategic and employed advanced voter registration research combined with door to door training sessions. They pulled information from previous elections, established ranking criteria and then focused on mobilizing volunteers to reach out. The ranked voter analysis was then analyzed geographically to ensure sufficient campaign coverage; keying in on areas of the highest density of likely yes and undecided voters. The volunteers were provided with information packets organized by key talking points so that they would be readily accessible to hand out during conversations with fellow Patrons.

One key example involved the proposed new competition gymnasium. New athletic spaces are often lighting rods for objections during bond issue elections. In this case, due to their involvement in the Facilities Planning Committee, members of the Campaign Committee were not only able to communicate how their current day to day challenges of scheduling athletic events can significantly lengthen the school day for student athletes, but also how critical this new space was to the overall construction phasing plan. In Fort Calhoun, the new competition gym will be used for swing space to house temporary classrooms while the entire interior of the existing building is gutted and remodeled. These folks were there when the options of bringing in portables or finding alternative locations to house students were discussed. Now they were able to educate others, helping them to understand the why behind the recommended solution.

Again, every community and every election is different; my hope is that these insights may prove to be helpful to your district when considering how to approach a bond issue election.