Checklist: Planning for School Referendum Success

School ReferendumWhen it comes to funding schools, community members are generally supportive. For instance, in Wisconsin’s elections this past April, voters approved nearly $770 million in additional funding for the state’s school districts, voting in favor of three quarters of all the district referendum questions. That said, school referendum questions regarding borrowing for construction and renovation projects tend to have slightly lower approval ratings, averaging around 61%.

When considering financing a construction or renovation project through a school bond, your district’s goal shouldn’t merely be for that referendum to pass. Your aim should be to build such a strong level of support and trust in your proposed project’s ability to positively impact the community that voters overwhelmingly support your school referendum question. While there’s no exact science to referendum success, there are certainly steps you can take to improve the chances that your school bond measure will pass.

Start Strategically: Tie Your Project Back to Your Strategic Plan

Within their strategic plans, most districts include an objective that pertains to fostering and achieving student engagement. Many times this is talked about in terms of the overall school culture, which we know is directly impacted by the conditions of the physical spaces surrounding students and teachers on a daily basis. So when we talk about school construction or renovation projects, it’s important to demonstrate that the project is a natural extension of the district’s strategic plan to achieve that mission. You’re not just building; you’re helping to build a culture that impacts student achievement and engagement and helps teacher retention, all while fulfilling your district’s mission.

The clearer and stronger connections that you can identify between your school construction project and the objectives laid out in your strategic plan, the easier time you’ll have demonstrating a true need for the project you’re proposing, as well as clearly demonstrating the potential for tangible, beneficial outcomes.

Build a Team: Create a Facilities Planning Committee

Once you’ve established that your school construction or renovation project directly supports one of your district’s strategic planning objectives, the next step is to assemble a committee to lead the facilities planning process. While your superintendent and school board will certainly be pivotal in supporting your referendum and driving the project forward, your district facilities committee should represent the entirety of your community. This group will lead the “master planning” process and will ultimately deliver a plan outlining how the district can best meet their facilities’ needs to the board of education.

A strong committee should include a broad range of perspectives, including participants who may be naturally inclined to support a facilities improvement project, as well as those who may be naturally predisposed to oppose such a project. We’ve found that having people who tend to oppose facility improvement projects in general – and the corresponding tax increases that the improvements may well require – on your committee will help you develop a plan that really focuses on producing tangible outcomes. These people will also give your committee insight into concerns shared by others in the community, helping you know how to address those concerns when communicating with the public during a public information campaign should you elect to pursue a school referendum.

Your committee should also represent a diversity of backgrounds and experience. The strongest facility committees we’ve worked with have included business leaders and other influencers in the community, school board members, teachers, parents, and even students. Engaging committee members with diverse backgrounds and experiences who have leverage in your community will be critical to your communication success when it’s time to go to the polls.

Gear Guard Table being used for project

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Get Specific: Develop a Facilities Plan

With your facilities planning committee or advisory council in place, it’s time for the planning to begin. Over the course of its engagement, the committee should meet regularly to understand district facility needs within the context of the community’s priorities and future plans.

The committee should use population studies, community surveys, financial analyses, input from industry experts like architects and construction management firms, and other primary research techniques to understand how school facility changes may impact the community. It’s also important to conduct a thorough review of the current state of the district’s facilities, both from a structural standpoint, but also within the context of the community’s overall needs and priorities. This review will help inform a capital maintenance plan, which identifies short- and long-term needs for all buildings.

Based on the capital maintenance plan — which is often prepared in collaboration with a construction management firm and/or an architect — the committee will explore options to address the maintenance items and needs they’ve identified. As part of this exploration process, it’s often helpful for the committee to tour the facilities of other districts that have faced and addressed similar challenges.

Once the committee has synthesized its research, it’s time to use those findings to develop a range of recommendations that address the building needs identified in the capital maintenance plan. Your committee should narrow its list of recommendations down to two or three final options to present to the school board and the community for their consideration.

Time to Get Started!

Following this basic framework will put your district in a strong position for school referendum success and will bring you one step closer to creating a physical environment that truly engages your students, staff, and the community.


Sarah Dunn

Sarah Dunn

Sarah is the CG Schmidt Vice President and serves as the firm’s K–12 market leader in their Madison, Wisconsin office. She works with public school clients throughout Wisconsin to create custom communication and outreach strategies. She has spoken at the state education conference and has been recognized nine times by the Wisconsin School Public Relations Association for her work on referendum engagement campaigns, including earning the Lighthouse Award, the organization’s highest recognition. Sarah also received the Pinnacle Award for her leadership on the 2018 referendum for the School District of Wisconsin Dells, and she was named 2018’s business developer of the year by the Society for Marketing Professional Services.
Sarah Dunn

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