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Bond programs 101: My school district needs money. Where do we start?

November 17, 2022

By Kimberly Bow and Scott Klaus

How do school bonds work? When it’s time to upgrade our campuses, we rely on each other to give our community’s kids a leg up in learning.

Recently, a friend asked: “Why are classrooms so crowded? Why are there portable buildings placed outside of schools just a year or two after they have been completed? Why do districts plan so poorly?”

There’s a lot to unpack here. We know we need to be fostering safe and effective learning environments that inspire the next generations to lead fulfilled lives. Classrooms look vastly different today than they did 50 years ago, using flexible spaces to provide hands-on learning and career and technical education (CTE). “Smart boards” and robotics labs cost money, and we need to do more than replace aging infrastructure from the past—we need to plan for the future. Not just in terms of tech but capacity, too.

It’s no surprise that districts are having a hard time keeping up. The latest Census figures paint a startling picture of Texas’ population. Ranked first in the US for added residents, Texas amassed 850 new residents per day from 2020 to 2021. Plus, 25% of Texas’ 29.5 million residents are under 18. That adds up to more than 7 million school-aged children, many in public school.

But people coming together isn’t the problem, it’s the solution—because schools are funded by bonds in Texas. 

Funded by a local bond and designed by Stantec, the Welch Outdoor Learning Center embodies Katy Independent School District’s mission to deliver leading-edge education while preserving the heritage and history of the campus.

Who is responsible for passing a bond?

Short answer: you! The community has the power to dole out the dollars our schools need.

To understand how, let’s look at the major players in a bond.

The school board, made up of elected community officials, calls a bond referendum to support the district. The school board helps determine educational policy and administrative procedures throughout the district, including managing school funding. Side note: these bonds are different from the local taxes that pay teachers’ salaries (a topic for a whole other blog).

The superintendent reports directly to this elected school board, serving as the district’s eyes and ears to keep the board informed of schools’ conditions. The superintendent helps determine the scope for the bond.

The bond committee, comprised of local citizens, helps the superintendent understand the district’s needs. The bond committee is typically responsible for the final bond recommendation to the superintendent and ultimately the school board, and it gets the word out to other residents about the bond.

The residents then vote on the bond, which could fund new campus facilities, improve existing infrastructure, purchase equipment and vehicles, and buy land for new facilities. From voting in the school board members, to serving on the bond committee, to voting for the bond, the money for our Texas schools starts and ends with the community.

Students make their way to classes via the iconic stairway at Memorial High School in Houston, Texas.

Where does the intel for a good bond come from?

School districts engage architects, engineers, and other skilled consultants to perform regular facility assessments of existing schools. These professionals check out the conditions to help the district understand how much funding needs to be allocated to repairing or improving these assets before assigning funding for new schools.

School districts also typically hire demographers to study statistics and predict what the student population will be in the next 5 to 10 years. This helps the district understand how many new buildings they need to construct to keep up with population increase.

Financial advisors determine how much funding a district can pursue based on current and predicted property values. The financial advisor gives the district guidance to raise or lower property taxes to gain the proper amount of funding.

Political issues can turn the tide of any bond. In many instances, residents in older areas of a school district will complain that the newer, faster growing portions of the district get more funding. The bond committee can help outline these community issues to help the district distribute funding in a way that makes the most residents want to vote yes.

Basically, the district’s priorities and needs drive the bond. Recognizing that these priorities are usually intertwined, the school district will often hire an architect or bond planner to untangle this complex puzzle. A bond planner uses assessments, budgets, future capacities, and politics to create different scenarios with pros and cons for the committee to discuss.

The bond planner also talks to faculty so that the bond’s improvements are practical in the real world and consider the day-to-day impacts on teachers and students. For example, a teacher with a room full of 22 kindergartners will tell you that classroom needs an attached bathroom!

The process is complex and time consuming, and realistically the school district will always have more needs than they have dollars. So, what can be done to pass the bond and get more money into our schools?

From voting in the school board members, to serving on the bond committee, to voting for the bond, the money for our Texas schools starts and ends with the community.

Strategies for passing a bond

The most important thing a school district can do to get a bond passed is put together a winning team, which starts with the community. The bond will be approved by the voters of the community, and the bond committee is the voice of that community, an army of advocates. Of course, the experts that tell the district how much funding to request, provide the right legalese, and gather the data to develop a bond with the right improvements to educational spaces are also critical. They set the bond committee up for meaningful conversations with the community.

Once a bond election is called, a school district employee can’t advocate voting for or against it. Their salary is paid for by tax dollars. The bond committee, then, is the group responsible for carrying out a persuasive campaign to the community.

Key strategies for empowering this army of advocates include:

  • Actively include them in the data/planning phase. By asking the community, “what would you like to recommend to the school board?” the district can explore different perspectives in developing the bond to represent the community as holistically as possible. Before even calling the bond, the bond committee will get key insight into why decisions were made so that they can answer the community’s questions once the bond is called.
  • Show them the buildings. The proof is in the poorly aging infrastructure. Taking these members of the community on tours of facilities gives them real-life reasons to campaign for a yes on this bond. This insight also helps the bond committee fight the sticker shock that can come when citizens realize the new high school will cost more than $100 million.
  • Conduct an ethical campaign. This may sound like a no-brainer but once the school board calls the bond, it’s time for every district employee to step back. It’s better to empower the community members in the planning phase and let them trust that the bond was developed in everyone’s best interests than to send the superintendent into a parent advisory council meeting, destroying credibility and risking the bond.
  • Lead with the ask. A bond committee must be approachable and direct. “Hey sports fans, thanks for coming out to support the team! Can we count on your vote next month for the bond to replace these bleachers?” announced over the high school football game can go a long way toward passing a bond. Candid engagement with context will galvanize voters much more than a flyer reporting the date and time of the election.
  • Focus on the benefits. A tried-and-true campaign strategy is letting people know this: what’s in it for me? The bond committee is going to be the face answering this question once the bond is called. Why take time out of the day to vote? What’s at stake for a retiree with no kids at home or single professionals? Many new school upgrades focus on flexible spaces—so Saturday date night might be a cooking class at the high school’s new culinary program kitchen.

Bottom line—without community buy-in, even the best bond will get rejected.

With Stantec’s help, Spring Branch ISD’s bond program revitalized a 55-year-old high school to a state-of-the-art campus.

What does a successful completed bond look like?

A successful completed bond has provided residents a sense of community and belonging. Most importantly, the community trusts that the district has achieved everything they promised when the bond was being proposed. If the district falls short, this can lead to mistrust and make the next bond even more difficult to pass.

Student facilities need to provide improved spaces for learning. Teachers and students need to be inspired to come teach and learn every day. Environments with plenty of natural daylight are proven to help student learning and increase attendance. Classrooms with movable desks give teachers the flexibility to configure their rooms to give students individualized instruction. CTE spaces funded by a successful bond can empower students to graduate high school with college credits or even an associate degree. CTE programs also encourage graduates to stay in the community and continue to enrich it with their skilled trade.

The community also needs to feel like they have gained new amenities. Providing facilities that are multipurpose, serving more than just the immediate district, is important. Facilities such as playgrounds, walking tracks, community rooms, and pools can serve a larger portion of the residents. People look forward to sports games and performing arts events—there is a sense of pride in rallying around your community’s schools. Flexibility also allows schools to pivot, serving as refuges during natural disasters.

A successful bond starts and ends with the community. Providing high quality educational facilities for our students is a complex task. 

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