Budget & Finance

Passing School Bonds Is Hard. Advice From 3 Superintendents Who Did It

By Caitlynn Peetz — April 29, 2024 8 min read
Collage of a construction site and school grounds.
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Voters in the Grandview school district in Missouri passed a $50 million bond in early April—the largest in district history. The borrowing package is a major boon for the 3,700-student district south of Kansas City as it seeks to upgrade old buildings.

There are some big-ticket items the funds will cover, including a new baseball and softball field at the high school. But most of the money is intended to pay for smaller-scale projects like modernizing heating and cooling systems and repairing and upgrading restrooms.

The bond didn’t come with a tax increase for community members, which could have been a plus for voters who in 2021 approved a 60-cent property tax levy largely used to fund teacher salary increases, Superintendent Kenny Rodrequez said. But, he said, voters probably still thought critically about the proposal, which would add to the district’s long-term indebtedness, and ultimately decided the cost was worth the benefit for Grandview students, he said.

“It really comes down to trust—do they have the trust in the school district and you, as the superintendent, to do this work?” said Rodrequez, who has led the district since 2016.

Regardless of their rationale, voters left little doubt of their strong support for the measure. About 71 percent voted in favor.

The Grandview story is one that reflects the experience of school districts across the country that rely on bonds and levies backed by local taxpayers to fund building projects and maintenance.

Many districts will have to come to terms with shrinking revenues as pandemic relief aid winds down and some states cut aid, and there are few alternatives sources of construction funding. So more could turn to bond measures to fund the projects that they’ve long been wanting to tackle.

Most states require school districts to seek voter approval before issuing bonds to pay for expensive facilities projects like HVAC repairs and roof replacements, as well as for technology tools, measures to improve compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, and heightened security.

That means communities could increasingly be called on to approve borrowing that might result in property tax increases, which can be a tough sell, school district leaders say.

It can become especially tricky as district leaders try to share information they feel makes the proposals necessary without advocating for support, as they are generally prohibited by law from campaigning for a bond measure. It’s difficult, but doable, according to district leaders who have successfully managed the process.

They suggest being as transparent as possible about the potential financial impact on residents if the measures pass, as well as being accessible and responsive to questions and concerns. They also highlight the importance of relying on strong relationships with community groups and advocates.

In 2023, nearly 1 in 4 school district bond elections failed, according to data from the SchoolBondFinder tool developed by the Amos Group, which sells school finance data to companies looking to contract with districts. Still, voters across the country approved about $80 billion in school bond issues—historically, a high amount but less than the $97 billion approved in 2022, which was the largest annual total since SchoolBondFinder began tracking the data in 2014.

Most states require a simple majority of voters to pass bond measures, but 10 require more support, including Idaho, where two-thirds of voters must vote in favor and where many borrowing packages fail even when they have majority support.

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Informing without advocating is a ‘bit of a tightrope’

District leaders can generally share facts and information about bond measures and the reasons behind them, but striking the right balance between informing and directly advocating for “yes” votes can be difficult.

In 2022, both the superintendent and spokesman for the Idaho Falls school district were fined after the district sent out mailers encouraging residents to register to vote in an upcoming election and outlining what a proposed bond would pay for. The pushback was led by a conservative lobbying group that pursued several such lawsuits against districts across the state in an attempt to shut down bond proposals. The county prosecutor agreed that it was illegal for the district to call schools “overcrowded” and “aged,” and to say students “need modern, safe, and secure schools,” according to reporting by the Idaho Statesman and ProPublica.

With the legal parameters in mind, and the understanding that what they may consider to be a fact could be used as ammunition for opponents, superintendents and other district leaders have to be careful in their wording about bond and levy proposals. They have to give voters as much direct and indisputable evidence as possible, said Matt Montgomery, the superintendent in Lake Forest, Ill., where voters a year ago narrowly approved a $106 million bond measure.

“You should never hear my voice say to vote yes. You should hear me sharing the facts and answering questions because that’s ethically, morally, and legally the right thing to do,” Montgomery said. “It can be a bit of a tightrope, but we’re educators, so we’re educating instead of campaigning.”

What can get voters to yes on school bonds

It can be a blow when voters shoot down a district bond proposal.

Plans to upgrade buildings that are outdated and sometimes literally falling apart are shelved; hopes to buy land to build new facilities aren’t realized; and maintenance like HVAC upgrades and repairs is deferred for years.

There’s no surefire way to get enough “yes” votes, Rodrequez said, but there are some things that can help.

Along with pointing to previous examples of successful projects, Rodrequez said community members tend to value upfront and clear information about what will be funded and what it will cost them.

He recommended creating documents that outline as clearly as possible the size of the potential tax impact on properties of differing values, and sharing that information with the community as soon as possible. He also suggested superintendents hold large and small meetings to hear from community members and answer questions.

Livestreaming events online can allow more people to participate, and even submit questions in real time.

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Montgomery, the superintendent in Illinois, said his district relied on a “steady drumbeat of communication” to share information prior to its bond vote. That included mailers, a website that allowed people to enter their property value and see exactly how much the bond would cost them, near-constant speaking engagements and forums, and videos about projects the money would fund.

“If you don’t take the time to engage the community, you could fall short in a big way,” Montgomery said.

The voting population is more than parents

Sharon Contreras, who led the Guilford County, N.C., district when voters supported a $1.7 billion bond measure in 2022, agreed.

Leading up to the vote, Contreras and her team launched a first-ever facilities assessment analyzing each of the district’s 126 schools to determine what—and how badly—maintenance was needed.

The million-dollar study was meant to help Guilford County create a plan of projects to address and prioritize them. On average, the district received about $7 million annually in capital funds from the local government, Contreras said—a tiny fraction of the district’s overall budget of around $1 billion—which meant it was unrealistic to tackle an individual large project, like a replacement of one school’s HVAC system, in a single year.

The facilities assessment offered a concrete picture of what needed to be done, and the district used it as the basis for explaining its borrowing request.

“I could just say, ‘Here’s what independent engineers, consultants, and construction experts say,’” Contreras said. “People were going to take that information and come to their own conclusions, and a whopping majority of the community came to the conclusion that [existing building conditions] were unacceptable.”

About 66 percent of voters backed the bond. It was, at the time, the largest school bond ever passed in North Carolina, and added to a $300 million bond voters approved in the previous election.

When they’re seeking voter support for a bond package, districts aren’t just appealing to parents.

In many districts, a large percentage of voters don’t have children in the school system—in Guilford County, that figure is about 70 percent. Still, they vote on bond and levy issues, so showing them how they also benefit from the investment can make a difference, Contreras said.

In her community, that involved inviting business leaders into schools to assess conditions for themselves and explaining how those could influence potential employees’ and businesses’ decisions to relocate to the area and sway local home values.

“We had to convince people who aren’t directly tied to the schools that this mattered to the vibrancy of the community,” she said.

Other issues on the ballot

It is also important for district leaders to be aware of other ballot issues that have nothing to do with the school district but could still influence a bond proposal’s chances.

In Jackson County, Mo., home to the Grandview school district, a proposal for a 40-year sales tax increase to partially fund a new Kansas City Royals baseball stadium and renovations to the Kansas City Chiefs’ football stadium was on the ballot alongside the Grandview bond proposal.

“That was a concern for me because I didn’t know if people were just going to be mad and vote no on everything on the ballot,” said Rodrequez, the Grandview superintendent. “So we tried as much as possible to be out in the community explaining the difference between the two projects.”

Voters rejected the stadium tax increase while they supported the school bond.

The most important takeaway from the success of their districts’ bond proposals, the three superintendents said, is the importance of building connections with a diverse pool of community members—and doing so before asking for their support at the ballot box.

“Whether you’re in the classroom or outside of the classroom, relationships are the biggest predictor of success,” Montgomery said. “People are smart enough to tell the difference between meaningful and superficial relationships. So, while it takes a tremendous amount of bandwidth to do, building up those relationships early is really important.”

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