Planning for Successful Bond Elections-November 18, 2020 Recap

Article | 12.08.2020

The November 18, 2020, Wednesdays with Wightman Town Hall session featured guest panelists:

  • Tom Page, campaign and message strategist at School Communicators Network
  • Jesse Nelson, independent municipal advisor, CPA, and partner at Baker Tilly Municipal Advisors
  • Greg Monberg, panel facilitator & director of Wightman’s Architectural Studio
  • Dr. Thomas Langdon, moderator and part-time superintendent, Walkerville Public Schools

Running successful bond elections that allow school districts to improve infrastructure and learning environments are among the most challenging strategic efforts for school administrators and boards. In this Wednesdays with Wightman Town Hall, three bond proposal experts explored methods to improve the odds of a successful bid with voters.

Greg Monberg provided an overview of the community-driven approach Wightman experts use when working with clients. The process is rooted in developing engagement among key constituent groups including parents, students, administrators, teachers, and community members.

By using one-on-one interviews between participants and small group discussions centered on discovering perceived needs, empathy and understanding is built around multiple viewpoints. Hands-on activities, such as the What-How-Why exercise, helps workshop participants express what they see students needing to do in facilities, how they should be doing those activities, and why those activities are important to the learning process.

These workshops help define a needs statement upon which the bond proposal will be based. This also helps to build champions within the community who will be positive voices during the run up to the election.

Tom Page covered seven pre-roadmap considerations administrators should examine when planning a communication strategy to inform voters on a ballot initiative. The seven steps include;

  1. Folks, we have a choice to make. This involves defining what the future will look like when the bond proposal passes, and what it will look like if it doesn’t.
  2.  Here’s how we got here. Provide voters with background about the resources the district has available, how those have been successfully used, and the need currently facing the district.
  3. Your solution must…When developing messaging, the bond must fund a solution to a real problem, be reasonable, be comparatively affordable for average families within the district, and be long term.
  4. The first two strategic decisions to make. Before reaching out to voters, decisions need to be made about what will and won’t be said when talking about the proposal. Consideration also should be given to whether to use a campaign approach or if the communication strategy will be more of an ongoing conversation.
  5. Two opponents every campaign will face. Any time a bond proposal goes before voters, there are two groups that need to be addressed: those who are the “no, for now” voters that want more data or evidence of need, and the “heck if I know group”. Often included in this later group are teachers and staff who don’t understand the details of the bond and thus are unable to answer questions posed by friends and family. Educating key internal groups creates more advocates for the cause.
  6. The message is one-third of the battle. When crafting a bond proposal message, it must not be about “us,” but rather about “them” including students, teachers, taxpayers, and the community. A district must identify key audience segments and develop targeted messaging that resonate with each group. It is also critical to determine who will be doing the asking and identify which advocates will convey the message best.
  7. Two inconvenient truths about elections. First, determine how many “yes” votes you need to win, and then work on getting “yes” voters to the polls. While it is tempting to try to convert everyone, a district must stay focused. Second, election logistics are shifting. Work with municipal clerks to understand how voter turnout is changing at the local level.

Beyond identifying needs and developing a communication strategy, another critical element in preparing for a bond proposal is the legal and financial structure of the bond. Jesse Nelson shared several considerations for district administrators and boards.

Ballot language needs to contain a) the “not to exceed” bond amount - this is the ceiling for how much the district can draw upon; and b) a listing of allowable expenditure items – if it isn’t listed in the ballot language, the money cannot be used for it later.

Multiple bond series – Just because a total amount is approved by voters, that doesn’t mean the entire amount must be issued in year one. Bond sales can be scheduled over several year, as money is needed. This reduces interest expense and can help with long-term capital planning.

Estimated bond millage study – By analyzing when existing bond debt will be retired, there may be an opportunity for a new bond ballot proposal without increasing the millage rate for taxpayers.

Allowable election dates – Standard election months are May, August, and November. During presidential election years, March is also an option in Michigan because of primary races. Historically, August has been the least popular month with districts given that so many potential “yes” voters, especially families, are away on vacation.

Planning – Districts should budget 18 to 24 months to plan for a bond campaign. This allows adequate time for community input, feedback, capital planning scenarios, and messaging.

If your district is considering a bond proposal in 2021 and beyond, now is the right time to plan. Reach out to your community to learn what various constituent groups feel is important. Study the numbers to right size your request to meet your capital needs while remaining affordable for your community. And, begin building your message.

The next Town Hall meeting on Wednesday, December 16, will look at the importance of ventilation systems in creating healthful indoor environments for students and teachers. The playback of the November 18 Town Hall is below.