Anatomy of a Successful Referendum: Saint Peter Schools
Innovate. Renovate. Collaborate.
That was the rallying cry for Saint Peter Public Schools’ decisive referendum win March 10, 2015. The catchy phrase is shorthand not only for the theme of the projects, but also for the mountain of preparation, communication and commitment that went into this effort, and that go into every successful school referendum process.
Saint Peter School District voters approved a $58,595,000 bond fund for a combination of new construction and renovation that will allow the southern Minnesota district to address its growing population, aging infrastructure and new programming needs. The vote allows the district to build a new, 185,000 s.f. grade 9-12 high school, repurpose South Elementary to a K-1 building, North Intermediate into a 2-4 building, and the existing middle/high school into a grade 5-8 and early childhood facility.
Such an undertaking doesn’t come together overnight, points out Gary Benson, director of project planning and development for Kraus-Anderson. While each district KA works with brings its own distinctive goals and challenges, all benefit from KA’s depth of experience as one of the nation’s premiere K-12 construction managers, Benson said.
Saint Peter‘s initial process of exploring community support for a new school building began in 2013 with a community-based Blue Ribbon Task Force committee. The task force looked at how best to serve projected enrollment increases of 1.5 to 2 percent a year over the next 10 years, a growth which far exceeds that experienced over the past two decades. The task force recommended construction of a new grade 9-12 school building and reconfiguring of the districts existing school facilities, which were built in the late 50’s and early 60’s.
In the fall of 2013 Kraus-Anderson was brought in, initially as a consultant, along with Mankato-based ISG Architects, to help guide the District in defining and determining project scope. After that six month process, in February 2014 the plan was presented to the school board and approved for moving forward.
The District’s next step was hiring the Center for Community Opinion to poll the community. Those results came back in May 2014, finding very positive support for the referendum and allowed the district to hone in on the referendum amount based on the community’s tax tolerance.
During the summer of 2014, Kraus-Anderson and ISG Architects were again interviewed through an RFP process, and rehired for the planning, budgeting and design development phase, which gained board approval in November of 2014. Next KA prepared the District’s Report to the Department of Education for review and comment, another necessary step on the road to referendum.
“Preparing the Report isn’t something a construction manager typically does, but it’s another service we are capable of providing,” said Benson.
With the Department of Education’s approval, the District turned its focus to the next step, the referendum information campaign.
“There are two campaigns that typically occur prior to a successful referendum,” explained Benson. “The district’s campaign is strictly informational, providing facts on the project, cost and schedule. This campaign is usually launched 10-12 weeks prior to the referendum vote.”
KA provided turnkey assistance with Saint Peter’s informational campaign, helping prepare messages, offering templates, and producing and printing over 5,000 informational mailers, Save the Date cards and sample ballot questions, Benson said.
“They really engaged the community in defining the components and project costs,” said Benson.
The second piece, the Yes campaign, begins 8-10 weeks before the referendum. This is the advocacy component and is led by the community members who canvas the community with more personal messages and other materials to build support for the referendum. KA assisted the community leaders of the Yes campaign by providing examples of other districts’ approaches, and assisted with the production of door hangers, flyers, banners, postcards, lawn signs and other collateral materials.
“If people were positive, or leaning toward supporting the referendum, the campaigners asked if rather than leaving a lawn sign, they could tie a blue and white ribbon to a tree in their yard,” Benson noted.
Timing of the referendum also worked in the district’s favor, allowing for a sustained effort for both the information and advocacy campaigns without the disruption of major holidays.
“January referendums traditionally don’t do well. In November and December, people are focused on their holiday gatherings, and in January they’re dealing with their holiday bills,” Benson noted.
Another benefit of the Saint Peter School campaign was leadership continuity. Long time superintendent Jeff Olson retired in 2014, but was retained as a consultant to help the district through the referendum process. Former Principal Paul Peterson succeeded Olson as superintendent, providing his own depth of understanding to referendum efforts.
“Having worked with KA through every aspect of the pre-referendum, referendum and now pre-construction phase, both as the high school principal and now superintendent, I can’t say enough how invaluable their expertise and execution have been every step of the way,” said Peterson. “The experience and skill set of KA were excellent complements to our community’s enthusiasm for building a new high school.”
After years of planning, and months of information sharing including 23 community meetings, seven Saturday morning coffee meetings, and hundreds of discussions, the district’s well-prepared and methodical campaign paid off in a decisive referendum. With a very high voter turnout, 57% voted Yes.
Plans for the new high school include flexible and collaborative academic spaces supporting STEM programming; performing arts, athletics, a Career Academy and Workforce Development Center supporting training in areas of agriculture science, manufacturing and engineering; and community-centered spaces. Located just north of the Gustavus Adolphus college campus, the new school site is adjacent to municipal land slated for the future City Park, providing opportunities for shared recreational amenities for the school and community.
“Everyone is saying the same thing,” said Peterson. “The biggest winner today is the community and the kids…Think of the message the community just sent the kids. The message is they matter.”
Groundbreaking is planned for this fall.View Comments