Six questions to ask for a successful bond request

Gain taxpayer approval for the facilities investments your K-12 schools need

Whether your district is rapidly growing, adopting new teaching models, upgrading safety measures, or otherwise evolving, maintaining and modernizing your schools is a necessity. Typically, that means a bond request to fund facilities improvements. Not all bond requests succeed—but stakeholders are more likely to approve those that make a compelling and accurate case for funding. 

Preparing an effective bond request requires both data and expertise. The more specific, data-driven and informed your bond request, the more taxpayers are likely to support funding that addresses critical maintenance needs, updates your classrooms, or builds new schools. Answer the following six questions effectively to make a successful bond request. 

1. What do your school buildings actually need?

Your school principals probably bring facilities needs to your attention regularly. However, your schools may have other capital requirements that are not immediately obvious.

It’s common for school districts to spend millions of dollars responding to frequent, attention-demanding emergencies as equipment fails and facilities show visible wear and tear. That reactionary mode takes away from budget dollars available for ongoing maintenance, which is why many K-12 school districts have significant deferred maintenance backlogs.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, more than 53% of K-12 public schools need investments toward repairs, renovations and modernizations to reach acceptable conditions.

As a result, your schools could be functionally older than their chronological age might suggest. You might know when a school was built but lack detailed records about how it has been maintained and whether various facilities components need replacement or significant repairs. This data is crucial for estimating immediate- and long-term maintenance needs.

2. How can your facilities address parents’ and students’ concerns about health, wellbeing and safety?

As every school superintendent is aware, health, wellbeing and safety are concerns for teachers, parents, staff and even students. Therefore, it’s important to communicate how facilities management protects students and teachers, while also enhancing the learning environment. 

Poor ventilation and indoor air quality, for example, can interfere with alertness and concentration, while also contributing to the spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses. A leaky pipe not only wastes water, but also could be damaging school equipment or contributing to mold growth that threatens the health of students, teachers and administrators. A broken door lock is not only inconvenient, but an invitation to intruders.  

Furthermore, your schools may be out of compliance with changes to building codes related to health and safety. It might not be glaringly obvious that a school is out of compliance with local, state or federal codes. In addition to the risk of costly fines, lack of compliance may also inadvertently create hazards for students and teachers.

Fears concerning violence at school have led many K-12 school districts to incorporate new security equipment and take other initiatives to improve school safety. Many safety issues can be resolved by having proper landscaping that ranges from pruning trees to keep predators from hiding to having large, mounded grass berms around the school to keep vehicles from moving across your grounds. School design strategies also can help reduce incidents. Rather than assigning teachers to individual classrooms, one Northeast school adopted shared classrooms and gave each teacher an office along the facility’s main hallway. Each office has a glass window, ensuring that students travel the hallway under the watchful eyes of their teachers.

3. How can you prioritize facilities investments?

Your FCA will likely result in a long list of facilities needs that you will need to prioritize. Not all projects will be equally critical or deliver equal returns on investment. For example, an aging HVAC system may have seven years of useful life remaining. However, it might be wiser to replace it now with a more efficient system with a five-year payback based on projected energy savings.

An FCA kickstarts the prioritization process when it includes a capital expenditure forecast based on industry-accepted lifespans of building equipment. It also can take into consideration the short- and long-term impacts of investments, such as energy savings or reduced maintenance costs. When you score each project on the basis of urgency, cost and impact, you will know how and when you should be allocating capital to building equipment and major maintenance items. 

In addition to supporting the task of prioritization, cost forecasting is an opportunity to explore new equipment and technologies available in the marketplace. One advantage of partnering with a service provider to create your FCA and capital plan is that you will gain access to information about the latest technologies and maintenance practices that could advance your sustainability goals, reduce your facilities costs, and add value to your facilities.

A proactive, data-driven approach to capital planning will minimize organizational politics and bias. Instead, your bond request will be backed by data, facts and recommendations making a clear case for prioritizations and capital investments. 

Given the potential for hidden issues, the best way to uncover buildings and equipment needs is through a comprehensive facility condition assessment (FCA) of all your district schools. An FCA enables you to gather data about the quality and useful life of all the building components and systems in all your schools, from roofing to heating and cooling, to finishes and fixtures. Most importantly, you can use FCA data to create a capital plan as the foundation of your bond request.

4. Should you renovate or replace?

Often, a particular school may require extensive repairs and renovations. That’s where an FCA and capital plan can be very useful. If the data indicates that renovations to a particular school would amount to 70% of replacement school value, then building a new facility is usually the better option. In a densely population urban area, however, it may be difficult to find an appropriate site—in which case you’ll need to consider whether capacity can be added to the schools you already have.  

In a typical K-12 school, for example, 25-30% of space is unused every day, according to design experts VCBO. Each classroom may be used by only one teacher, who may or may not have classes every period. Modern school design is changing this paradigm to allow for flexibility and better use of space to maximize learning and minimize cost. Working with an experienced K-12 architect and real estate service provider can be invaluable in determining the cost and feasibility of undertaking extensive renovations or siting and building a new school.  

5. How do you help stakeholders visualize your new / improved schools?

As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. If you are seeking funding for renovations or for new schools, visual storyboards will help create excitement and context about your ideas for the future of learning in your community.  

Visual elements can include artists’ renderings of how a renovation or new school will look. You should also be prepared to present design and development costs based on the renderings presented. Including “before” pictures of aging equipment and outdated classrooms can create a greater sense of urgency for funding repairs and renovations. You could even share photos of ideal conditions your school facilities should aspire to build or maintain based on comparable districts.  

Some taxpayers may not have set foot in a school in decades and will be unaware that current conditions are not meeting standards for safe, comfortable environments that foster strong learning outcomes.

6. Have you allowed enough time to prepare your bond request?

Given the many steps involved in preparing for a bond request, it’s best to begin the process at least a year in advance. Engaging an architectural firm or facilities services provider in June for a September bond request will not allow enough time to prepare a professional proposal.  

If you’ve been through the bond process before, you are aware that communicating your plans to the public must happen around the academic schedule. That means being prepared to share your vision throughout the school year and definitely before the school year ends. Of course, the precise timing will depend upon the unique timetable of your school system and state and local government processes.  

Modernizing your schools for the future of education

Creating a compelling story for taxpayers requires significant time and effort. In addition to retaining an architectural firm for design expertise, some school districts choose to partner with a facilities service provider that can dedicate an expert team to perform your FCAs and prepare a capital plan. Along the way, you can gain valuable expertise about leading best practices that can help reduce your facilities costs over time, while improving building performance.

Securing your bond request is only the beginning of keeping your schools safe, efficient and up-to-date. As you implement your capital plan, you’ll create a solid foundation of well-maintained buildings and documentation that will make the next bond request far more streamlined and easier to complete.

Raise your hand if you’d like to learn more about getting an FCA started for your next bond request.