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School & District Management

High Costs, Wary Taxpayers Make School Projects a Hard Sell

With the fate of big-ticket school projects on the line, messaging is crucial.
By Daarel Burnette II — November 28, 2017 | Corrected: December 01, 2017 8 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect spelling and location for the Battle Ground school district in Southwest Washington state.

It’s a sales pitch to a tough crowd, and for local school leaders the stakes couldn’t be higher: how to get the millions of dollars they need to build new schools and keep existing ones up to snuff.

Against a backdrop of reluctant taxpayers, tight budgets, and competing priorities, officials are forced to get creative in their efforts to secure the bond measures and other capital financing they need for school facilities, both in terms of construction and the continuing maintenance and upkeep.

Those efforts can involve enlisting parents as foot soldiers for door-to-door canvassing, as well as reaching out to voters through television ads and scripted phone bank calling.

“School referendums have become highly sophisticated campaigns not unlike legislative races or presidential races,” said Scott Croonquist, the executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, an advocacy organization in Minnesota. “It always comes down to communicating with the public and making sure they understand why the referendum is needed, what the money will be used for, and how students and [the] whole community will benefit.”

Patricia F. Deklotz, the superintendent of the 4,000-student Kettle Moraine school district in Wales, Wis., used a series of high-definition videos, negotiation with her opponents, and a grassroots social media campaign to win passage in 2014 of a $49.6 million bond measure that paid for several capital maintenance projects including the creation of new learning spaces and technology upgrades. The county hadn’t passed a bond since 2000.

“Schools do a disservice to a community when they need to speak in education-ese jargon,” Deklotz said. “People are smart and they care about schools. We need to bring it to them in a way that they understand and relate [to] so that they can be informed.”

Officials in the 13,500-student Battle Ground school district in southwest Washington didn’t give up last year after a bond measure asking for $80 million for new construction fell 5 percent short of the necessary 60 percent approval. Shifting their messaging and relying on a new state school funding formula that will cut local taxes, the board voted last month to place another request on the county’s ballot in February, this time asking for $224.9 million to replace three schools and build two others.

“It is discouraging when the majority of the people who voted, voted yes, but we still didn’t get the funding,” said Battle Ground Superintendent Mark Ross, who is not allowed by law to campaign for or against the ballot measure. “We’ve decided to go back to the voters and say, ‘Hi, we still have the same needs, many of you felt the same way.’”

Bearing the Cost

The nation’s school systems have long been heavily reliant on local taxpayers to pick up the bulk of school construction costs.

Local and state officials on average split evenly public schools’ operating expenses such as teachers’ salaries and textbooks. But, for the $50 billion Americans spend on maintenance and school construction each year, almost 85 percent of school costs come from local coffers, according to the 2016 “State of our Schools” report from the National Council on School Facilities, the U.S. Green Building Council and the 21st Century School Fund.

School buildings come with a hefty price tag, especially in an era when innovative features are baked in. Summit Technology Academy, co-located on a satellite campus of the University of Central Missouri, cost $30 million and was designed with career training in mind.

At least 12 states don’t pay for school construction at all.

And it’s exceedingly difficult to get school construction bonds passed at the local level.

Between 1960 and 1985, as an anti-tax fervor swept the nation, the voter-approval rates for school construction bonds plummeted from 75 percent to 35 percent, according to a 1997 study by researchers Michael W. Kirst—now the chairman of the California state board of education—and Frederick Wirt.

Though the passage rates vary from state to state, school funding requests still face a number of political and demographic headwinds.

Even though recent surveys show 92 percent of Americans think schools should be upgraded, more than half the nation’s taxpayers today think their taxes are too high, according to a 2014 Pew Research center poll.

Complicating matters, almost 1 out of every 3 counties in America has more residents age 65 and older than they do school-aged children, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Faced with such challenges, some superintendents and school board members have postponed millions of dollars worth of routine maintenance costs for years at a time.

The wear and tear on America’s schools has become increasingly obvious.

The 2016 “State of Our Schools” report estimated that there’s an $8 billion annual gap between what school officials spend on maintenance and operations versus what they should spend. Similarly, there’s a need for $28 billion in capital work at existing schools and $10 billion for new facilities, the report estimated.

The average age of school buildings today is 44 years old.

The dramatic shift in population centers in the nation, the result of changes in the farming and manufacturing industries, has further exacerbated these problems.

While the K-12 student enrollment grew by 4.8 million students between 1994 and 2013, that growth was concentrated in just eight states, while in 11 states student enrollment declined significantly. Both instances require school construction.

Utah’s student enrollment in recent years has skyrocketed, forcing districts to crowd students into portable buildings and break caps on class sizes, and sparking a teacher shortage.

Six of the state’s school districts went to voters earlier this month seeking more than $800 million in construction bonds to, among other things, build new schools. Only four of those measures passed.

For districts losing students, budget cuts inevitably follow, spiking maintenance costs and calls from administrators to close some schools and upgrade others.

West Virginia last year shuttered a middle school in Fayette County after bricks came tumbling out of its facade. The school’s closing followed years of infighting within the county over which school to shut down after thousands of students left the district after the local coal mines closed. But local residents couldn’t decide which schools would get upgraded and which would close.

Mounting a Campaign

Getting school construction bonds passed can be a politically vexing task for local officials.

Ron Zimmer, a professor at the University of Kentucky, studied a series of school construction campaigns in Michigan and what went into successful and unsuccessful efforts.

Closing the Deal

Persuading communities to take on the hefty borrowing needed to build and maintain schools can be a heavy lift. Here are some elements researchers and local officials and research say are crucial in securing the votes for bond measures that account for 80 percent of school facilities financing nationwide.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Districts need to convey in clear and concise language what the district’s needs are, why the district needs the requested amount, and how the upgrades or new schools will benefit students and voters.

Pictures Can Trump Words
Patricia Deklotz, the superintendent of the Kettle Moraine school district in Wisconsin, said images and videos of the district’s needs tended to resonate more with voters in a recent campaign than long explanations of why the district needed a new building or money for renovations. In one video advertisement, kindergartners waited several minutes until the school’s Wifi kicked in.

Be Transparent
Mark Ross, the superintendent of Battle Ground school district in Washington state, said voters are skeptical of bureaucrats asking for more money. He suggests being clear-cut and open with voters about the decisionmaking process and the districts’ spending habits.

Befriend Your Enemies
Deklotz, of Kettle Moraine, said she would often call up or meet over coffee with those lobbying to defeat her bond proposal. Hearing directly from officials gave opponents an opportunity to have all their concerns addressed.

Focus on Need Rather Than Process
Ross, from Battle Ground, said the school district originally thought voters wanted to hear how that the new construction plan involved as many stakeholders as possible. That approach, he said, was misguided. Community members, he has learned, are more interested in the detail of what’s needed than in the process of getting there.

Make the Connection to Academic Success
Career-tech centers and added classroom space are more appealing to voters than parking lots or sports facilities, says Ron Zimmer, a researcher at University of Kentucky who has studied school construction bonds.

Source: Education Week

Voters, he concluded, are reluctant to vote for anything not directly connected to academics.

Parking lots and facilities used for arts education and sports tend not to do well on ballots, Zimmer said. Even new schools are hard to sell to voters, he added.

What really resonates with voters, Zimmer said, is maintenance of effort, or keeping schools modern and safe.

“Even when premier high schools fall into severe disrepair, and school officials know it’s going to cost way more money to remodel than to rebuild it, we didn’t find voters were willing to support new schools,” Zimmer said. “Voters would much rather maintain existing facilities. Psychology plays a bit of a role in this.”

Interviews with district superintendents and their advocates across the country show that school districts have worked with consultants and each other to come up with creative strategies to get bonds passed.

Deklotz, of the Kettle Moraine district, said communication and transparency are key in getting school bonds passed.

“We promoted the idea that the school buildings belong to the community. And the community has to determine how they want to maintain their schools. Part of the difficulty in passing a bond is people need to understand the why. Why do you as a school district need this money while we’re already supportive of you?”

When the district in 2014 proposed its ballot initiative, Deklotz and other administrators hosted a series of town hall meetings, led walking tours of schools, and held sit-down meetings with their opponents to answer any questions and address any skepticism they might have. In one video promoted by the district, kindergartners chanted, “Keep calm, carry on,” while the teacher anxiously tried to get the school’s internet working in her classroom.

When local voters reject school bond proposals, states are increasingly stepping in to shore up maintenance and construction costs.

North Carolina earlier this month issued $30 million in school construction grants. And California voters passed a $9 billion school construction bond in 2016 that will match local district funding.

Funding Equity an Issue

Courts are also starting to step in to force states to create a more equitable funding mechanism for school construction.

At least nine states, either as a result of court rulings or legislation, have made establishing an equitable funding strategy for school facilities part of state law.

A study of 147,000 school facilities improvement projects between 1995 and 2004 found that high-wealth ZIP code areas had three times more capital investment than the lowest-wealth ZIP codes.

West Virginia in 1989 set up a statewide board made up of state school board members and local officials to determine how to help share the costs of school construction.

The state is expecting more than $50 million in requests this year from 28 districts across the state, many asking for maintenance costs. The shift in student population centers has required new construction in some places and shuttering in others.

“Our population keeps declining,” said Frank Blackwell, the executive director of the state’s School Building Authority. “We’re just extremely fortunate that the legislature tries to fund the [building authority] at an average figure of $50 million a year to distribute out what needs to be done across the state.”

Other states are currently trying to figure out that balance between what the state should shoulder and what local officials should shoulder.

Rhode Island’s state department of education released a study earlier this year about school facilities needs, detailing $2.2 billion in needed repairs to public schools. A special task force is set to come up with a way to pay for a plan. State officials are considering proposing a statewide bond proposal for the first time since 1984.

“We have to sound the alarm bell,” said General Treasurer Seth Magaziner during a press conference, according to local reports. “The longer we wait, the more expensive it will get.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2017 edition of Education Week as High Costs and Wary Taxpayers Make Capital Projects a Hard Sell


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