Schools are experts at teaching. Yet many school districts face a steep learning curve in order to inform and persuade taxpayers to support school referendums. A knowledgeable construction manager can be a valuable ally in the pre-referendum planning process.
As director of Project Planning & Development for Kraus-Anderson Construction Company, Gary Benson works with K-12 school superintendents and administrators throughout the Upper Midwest to help their districts make informed decisions through the process of pre-referendum planning.
Currently, in the state of Minnesota, school boards are empowered to vote forward increases of up to $300 per student, Benson says. Funding needs beyond that amount must be brought to the electorate for a vote, or referendum, to secure taxpayer support. Referendums may address operational needs, such as programming or salaries; or brick-and-mortar projects. Levies are issued for operational needs; bonds are issued for capital projects. “Levies are for learning. Bonds are for building, is a common phrase among school administrators for distinguishing referendum purposes to the public,” says Benson.
Pre-referendum services are required by virtually all Minnesota K-12 public school districts, depending on the project(s) they are trying to fund. Wisconsin and the Dakotas also use this funding mechanism. KA is currently providing pre-referendum services in Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota, in addition to helping districts early on with facility planning and assessing buildings in terms of need, capacity, and function.
Kraus-Anderson has assisted a number of Minnesota districts with recent successful referendum efforts, including Alexandria, Stillwater, Bloomington, and Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted. Such projects reflect both traditional and trending needs, including:
• Security – retrofitting existing facilities with single entrance vestibules monitored by the administrative office.
• Enrollment – additions and new school construction to address baby boom bubbles, or population growth; as well as consolidations to address population decline in some areas.
• Maintenance – replacement of aging mechanical and other systems in order to extend the life of existing facilities.
• Special learning programs– dedicated spaces for Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) learning ; STEAM learning upgrades (the A stands for Arts); and special education resources for students with autism or emotional behavioral disorders (EBD).
• Flexibility – creating spaces that can be readily adapted for group or independent project learning needs.
• Educational equity – working to create equal learning opportunities across multiple facilities within a district.
In order for a referendum to pass, the voter base must understand the need and be convinced to pledge additional tax dollars toward funding the need. While operating levies typically have a term of 10 years or less, building bonds usually are financed in 20-year or 25-year packages. The debt service to retire general obligation bonds can have varying impacts on the taxpayer depending on several factors, including demographics and tax base, Benson notes. For example, an affluent suburban district may fund a bond that impacts its homeowners on average $10/month, while the same bond amount issued in a sparsely-populated agricultural area brings a price tag to homeowners in excess of $300/month, he said.
“There is a lot at stake for the district,” said Benson. “Because most referendum needs follow a ‘pinch’ already being felt in facilities, space, or program needs, failure of the referendum vote is not an acceptable option.” Moreover for many superintendents, a school building referendum happens only once in a career. “Early collaboration with a knowledgeable construction manager can be a vitally important key to planning and winning the referendum,” Benson said.
Kraus-Anderson works hand in hand either with the architect, or before the architect is selected, to identify the district’s needs and to provide insight, ideas and alternatives drawn from KA’s experience as one of the nation’s top builders of K-12 schools.
“We provide a balance with the architect, identifying needs and providing cost and schedule analysis that help districts with realistic planning,” said Benson.
KA is one of the few construction managers who actively lead a district through pre-ref services, or want to. The effort requires a considerable investment of time – 12 to 18 months, sometimes more, Benson says.
“Typically we come in and help a district identify their needs. Then, after the cost and scope of the project is defined, we work with the school board and administration and eventually seek input from the community in a “task force” or similar engagement process,” said Benson. “During that time we might meet every two weeks, studying options and receiving the community’s feedback as plans take shape. That process can take three to six months. After that, the recommendations go to the board for one to two months. Then they pass a motion to identify project scope, cost, and pertinent project definitions. Upon board approval, the project proposal is submitted to the Minnesota Dept. of Education for its Review & Comment, a thorough review process that may take up to 60 days. Once the DOE has approved, the referendum goes out for the vote, and requires a simple majority (50 percent + one vote) in order to pass. That’s the process in Minnesota. In Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakotas, there are similar procedures for gaining taxpayer support and funding approval,” Benson said.
The payoff is the completion of a successful referendum, and with it, the prospect of building or upgrading school facilities that will meet and exceed a district’s expectations and serve students long into the future.
“This is where KA continues to be a valuable and resourceful partner for school districts!” says Benson.