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We Need a Referendum: Now What?

July 15, 2014 by Catherine Cruickshank and Kristen Paquet in School Business Affairs

We Need a Referendum: Now What?
Doing your homework before presenting a referendum is vital to its success.

By Catherine Cruickshank, MA, Dip. Arch, and Kristen Paquet

    Every day, educational leaders must consider how they are going to meet or operational needs. Some communities need to build and elementary school, update the middle schools, or expand their high schools; others need to create new programs to meet the changing needs of the workplace. At every educational conference or school board meeting, it’s clear that the clock is ticking.
    It’ almost inevitable – to meet those needs, at some point, every school board must present a referendum to their community. But the thought of preparing, presenting, and taking the issue to a vote can be overwhelming. How do we begin? What does the process entail? What options must we consider? Who do we need to engage?

Identifying the Need

    A key first step is to identify the need or needs that should be addressed with this referendum. Considerations may include the following:
• Creating an environment that enhances learning
• Developing a career and technology education center
• Addressing the growing demand for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education
• Upgrading technology to provide for 21st-century learning
• Addressing increasing or declining enrollment
• Providing equitable facilities
• Building an auditorium
• Addressing safety and security
• Improving operational efficiency
• Financing major maintenance needs
• Dealing with aging or obsolete buildings and
• Finding a new site for school facilities with suitable “usable” land area to meet the district’s future long-term needs.
    On the basis of your goals, establish early whether yours will be an operational or capital referendum. You will design your team according to the specific needs identified.

Building a Team

    Objectively, consider the in-house expertise available and the need for outside assistance, such as financial consultants, community relations experts, architects, landscape architects, engineers, construction managers, energy consultants, demographers, and referendum specialists, among others.
    Now, consider who should be responsible for various aspects of the project. Responsibility can be decided by preparing a request for qualifications or a request for proposals. Clearly state the scope of the project as it is understood at that time. For example, the project may be to design and build a new elementary school for 500 students or to incorporate environmental sustainability in an upcoming construction project.
    When talking with potential team members, clearly communicate the types of services you need. Clarity will enable apples-to-apples comparisons between competing firms. It will also allow a proper evaluation of the firm to see if it fits the needs of your project.
When developing and reviewing the request for qualifications or request for proposals, also carefully consider the factors that are important to you, for example:
• Experience with innovative 21st-century K-12 school facility design
• Demonstrated referendum success
• Previous work with school facilities that are certified as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design
• Expertise concerning site evaluation, design, and approvals for school projects.
    When you have created a short list of firms, it’s time to schedule interviews. Have a small and knowledgeable yet diverse group conduct the interviews. Before the interviews, reach a consensus about the attributes the ideal firm needs to possess to perform to your standards. Provide the interviewing team with the qualifications of each firm at least five days in advance.
    Allow at least one hour to interview each firm with enough time for questions. Incorporate open-ended questions in each interview. They will help you identify strengths and capabilities while also giving you insight into the communication style and the character of each firm. Provide breaks in between sessions to allow your team to complete their notes and adequately prepare for the next interview. Deciding who to hire is important; therefore, do not minimize the time committed to getting the time committed to getting to know the firm and the people you will be working with.
    After the interviews, be sure to conduct due diligence by calling the references supplied by your preferred candidates, as well as other sources uncovered in your reviews of the firm’s qualifications. This vital step can alleviate significant issues later or provide a greater sense of confidence in the firms you are considering.

Data Collection and Analysis

    Data are the foundation of a solid campaign, but what types of data do you need? Here are some important starting points:
• Age and condition of physical structure and building systems
• Site evaluation and documentation of physical conditions of the property
• Documentation of all approvals necessary, along with the process, submittal requirements, and schedules
• Energy and water usage;
• Demographics – enrollment growth or decline
• Teacher and staff interviews
• Parent and community focus groups
• Surveys
• Tours of district facilities in question
• Tours of other school district facilities for ideas.

    It’s been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and a tour is worth a thousand pictures. Be careful not to allow ivory-towered decisions. Equip people to make judicious decisions according to solid information.
    It’s important to have a facilities committee or planning team that represents your various constituents. Parents, community members, teachers, staff, and administrators should take a holistic view as they review all the data and consider historically relevant projects. Additional probing and information might be necessary as your project unfolds.

Site Considerations

    If the referendum addresses facilities, the team should consider both existing and potential new sites. The site selected must have adequate usable land area to accommodate the current and future program needs, such as parking, athletic fields, play areas, outdoor classrooms, service areas, storm-water management, and community needs. The physical and environmental restrictions of a potential site need to be thoroughly considered. Wetlands, steep slopes, existing easements, and zoning restrictions are just a few of the issues that may limit the amount of land that can be developed.
    Conduct a needs assessment. Some sites may appear to be appropriate at first glance, but the needs assessment may reveal that the property is too limited to provide for current and future needs. Such restrictions can result in inadequate land area, increased cost, limited design flexibility, and limited future expansion opportunities. Poor decisions and lack of adequate due diligence concerning site issues can jeopardize the success of a referendum.
    Other site considerations include (1) utility availability and capacity, (2) traffic impacts, (3) road infrastructure to support a proposed project, (4) soil conditions for structural stability and storm water management, (5) environmental conditions, and (6) unusual site development costs.
    Additionally, it’s important to confirm all zoning and land-use issues are addressed and that any obstacles can be accommodated for the proposed school use. With the affected area likely to grow (many communities see significant growth in the area surrounding a new school), the site should provide safe access to and from the new property.
    Traffic flow from parent, students, buses, staff and visitors should be prudently examined during the site evaluation process. To avoid future problems, reactive solutions, and expense, jurisdiction of adjacent streets should be confirmed through appropriate government agencies.
    Although the actual site might be excellent, you must also consider the surrounding and nearby properties. Opportunities with neighbors and obstacles related to them must be deliberated. Some schools have discovered a treasure trove of ways to partner with local citizens and businesses, whereas others have experienced years of conflict. Don’t create a Hatfield-McCoy scenario for current and future administration because of a lack of due diligence.

Brainstorming and Reality

Investigate and evaluate all viable options as you consider new construction, energy retrofits, mothballing property, deconstruction opportunities, or the sale or repurposing of property. While identifying all the various needs, price out each one to help create a priority list to follow and guide you.
    Finances are often the focus, but it’s not the proper starting point for considering a referendum. After following the suggested steps here, it’s time to begin formulating the budget, conducting cost-benefit analysis of alternative concepts, and considering nontraditional funding sources like energy grants or third-party ownership of renewable energy systems.
    If people naturally think of finances first, timing is a close second. The economic climate, debt retirement, current and future interest rates, the timeline (i.e. filing process, election dates, etc.), current feelings about leadership, and business climate in the community are all elements that are relevant to proposing a referendum.

Referendum Campaign

    There is no “cookie cutter” approach to a referendum. Each district is different and unique. The goal is to gain a full understanding of the project, the community demographics, the audiences that need to be reached, and so forth, so an effective communications plan can be tailored to the needs of the referendum.
    However, all referenda have a few factors in common. To lay the foundation for success, you must be able to show the community a clear need for the project, demonstrate fiscal responsibility, and to assure voters that all viable alternatives have been considered.
Additional areas that can make the difference between a successful and unsuccessful referendum:
• Support of the school board and administration
• Support of the teachers and staff
• Support from a parent group and the community.
With open and honest analysis of the factors presented here, you can define the strategies that will benefit you most during the referendum process.

Engaging the Audience

    Communication is vital in every facet of our lives, and that is never more evident than in an effort to pass a referendum. Being prepared for opposition and aligning with advocates are a worthy approach. Newsletters, “Get out the vote” efforts, fact sheets, websites, media relations, social media, open houses, presentations, tours, and direct mail are all important elements to inform the community and keep a consistent message “top of mind”.
    Overall, what is most important in a referendum is to develop a strong strategy that will appeal to the audience and create messages that will resonate with the community. The tactics and tools used to relay the message can be determined on the basis of the needs of the project and what your community will respond to best.
    Demonstrating project need, showing that the district has been fiscally responsible, and establishing that the board has considered all alternatives lead to referenda that are far more likely to pass. The need for a referendum might be crystal clear for you, and now you can make it crystal clear for your community.

Catherine Cruickshank is a senior project designer at Hoffman Planning Design & Construction Inc., which is based in Wisconsin. Email:

Kristen Paquet is a Senior Account Executive and Social Media Manager for Leonard & Finco Public Relations, Inc.

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