Six Tips for Passing a Bond Referendum

“Boring!!” you might think upon reading this title.

Certainly, the words “bond” and “referendum” aren’t the sexiest words around.

However, one of the most important responsibilities for school district leaders is guiding the community through a process of asking money for building projects. Given that they generate very little income on their own, school districts across America are reliant on their communities to help cover the cost of construction projects.

A bond referendum is a voting process that allows community members to decide if a school district is authorized to raise property taxes for the purpose of building new schools and improving existing facilities. Similar to a house mortgage, a bond gives school districts the ability to finance a new project without actually having the money at the time of purchase. When a bond referendum passes, the school district uses the increase in property tax to pay back the bond over several years.

In affluent communities, bond referendums are fairly straightforward. Most community members don’t mind paying a little extra for community development, and will vote “yes” on a school project without thinking twice.

Conversely, in working-class communities, bond referendums are more difficult to pass. Given that citizens in blue-collar towns have less disposable income, they are more likely to push back on projects that require taxpayer money.

I had the opportunity to lead a working-class community through two bond referendums with drastically different outcomes. This article shares what I learned through my experiences, pinpointing differences between the votes while providing tips for school leaders who may be going through similar projects.


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The South Tama County School District is located in central Iowa, about an hour northeast of Des Moines. The district spans 262 square miles, with a majority of its 10,000 residents living in the towns of Tama and Toledo.

Although it might sound like a typical Iowa district, South Tama County is far from ordinary thanks to its cultural diversity. A large Hispanic and Native American population make South Tama County one of the few “majority-minority” school districts in Iowa.


Approximately 65 percent of the students who attend South Tama County qualify for free or reduced lunches. With a median household income of roughly $49,000, the average South Tama County school district family makes 20% less than the average Iowa family ($61,500 median) and 25% less than the average American family ($67,000 median).

The three largest employers in the community are the Meskwaki Casino Hotel, the Iowa Premium meat packing plant. and the South Tama County School District. Agriculture plays a predominant role in the area, as local employers cater to farmers who harvest the surrounding land. Small businesses also make up a large portion of the workforce, although some have closed their doors in the post-pandemic era.

Similar to other small towns, South Tama County has an aging population. The average resident in the community is 43 years old, compared to Des Moines (34), Iowa City (26) and Ames (23) - all of which are a short drive away. With more job choices and social opportunities, many young adults choose to leave the community.


This combination of limited resources, sluggish economy, and aging population result in a fiscally conservative community that mirrors many small towns across the country. So when citizens are asked for permission to raise property taxes to fund school projects, these requests are often met with resistance.


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Recent voting history speaks to this general resistance.


In 2013, the school district asked the community to raise the local tax levy to assist with repairs and maintenance on school buildings. Needing a 50% majority to pass, the 2013 vote fell a single vote short of passing.

In 2014, the school district again asked the community to raise the local tax levy for financial support. However, this proposal was met with even greater resistance, garnering only 41% of the vote.

When I was named superintendent in 2018, focus had shifted to the aging middle school. Built in the early 1900’s, the school was over 100 years old and nearing the end of its usable life. In addition to being one of the oldest operating buildings in the state, the middle school needed significant updating to meet state code requirements.

In 2020, we asked district taxpayers to vote on a bond referendum to pay for a new middle school.

“Slow down!” you might be thinking. “First you said ‘levy.’ Then you said ‘bond.’ You're confusing me. What is the difference?”

Great question. While levies and bonds both use taxpayer money to raise revenue, they use different approaches to get there.

Think of levies like checking accounts, meaning money can be spent after taxpayer money has been collected. Since they are not taking on debt, districts pay no interest and do not make repayments. In contrast, recall that bonds are like mortgages, meaning money can be spent before taxpayer money has been collected. Since they are taking on debt, districts pay interest and make annual or semi-annual payments.


One other major difference between levies and bonds is the voter-approval process. In many states, levies are easier to approve than bonds. For example, Iowa requires a 50% simple majority for levies to be approved while bonds require a 60% supermajority. And while 10% doesn’t sound like much, this gap can be difficult for districts to overcome...


Which brings us back to 2020.


When we asked our community to approve a bond for a new middle school in 2020, 54% of the community voted "yes." While a majority of the community supported the project, we didn't get the 60% supermajority needed to approve the bond.


At first, I was bummed about the result. I wasn't used to losing - especially when it came to something in which had invested so much time and energy. "Maybe they were right" I thought upon recalling the community members who had warned that a school project would never pass in this community.


Then I was reminded of the following quote: "Every mistake is an opportunity to learn something new."


Once the initial shock wore off, focus turned to what could be learned from the previous vote. Armed with a tremendous team of architects, engineers, communication specialists, and tax experts, we spent the next two years tweaking our plan and preparing for another opportunity.


As we presented our new project to the community, we were careful to share how this project was different. By explaining how we learned from our 2020 missteps, we earned valuable trust with the community.


As the vote neared, there was growing confidence that a building project could pass for the first time in nearly two decades. The more we spoke with community members, the better we felt about our chances.


So when we heard that second vote had passed, we weren't entirely shocked. What we were shocked by was the level at which the vote had passed: a whopping 83 percent.


Not only had we doubled community support in eight short years, the 83% approval rate was the highest percentage of any bond voted upon in Iowa during the spring of 2022.

The high-tech graphic I shared on social media after the bond passed.

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The previous paragraphs make building projects sound fairly simple. In reality, few things will consume more of a district leader’s time than a building project. And while I will spare you many of the finer details, I want to be clear about the most important thing I learned while leading a district through two bond votes:


The rules for generating support are universal.

This means that the skills, approaches, and best practices used to generate support with employees are the same skills, approaches, and best practices used to generate support with the community.

During the first vote, I abandoned these best practices. Thinking that garnering public support required a different approach, I took the advice of others and tried things that I would never do with employees. So when the results weren't what we had hoped, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

During the second vote, I returned to these best practices. Rather than behave differently because we were working with the community, I fell back on the methods we use with employees. And while school bond votes depend on a number of factors, I believe this revised approach was a big reason for our success.


What are those "best practices?" Here are six ideas to consider:

Empower those Affected by the Decision: When a decision is made, those affected by the decision must have their voices be heard. During the 2020 vote, school leadership made most of the decisions, while the community - those affected by the decision - were the last to find out. During the 2022 vote, we switched gears and created a community task force. This group of community members was asked to make decisions about the project (location, cost, etc.) while school leadership was almost completely removed from the process.

All Voices at the Table: During the 2020 vote, I was reluctant to include anyone who was critical of the school district in the decision-making process. "Why would we want to include anyone who is super negative?" I reasoned. However, during the 2022 vote we intentionally included some individuals who had historically advocated against raising property taxes. To my surprise, these individuals were highly engaged and supportive of the project. Furthermore, these community members helped answer questions for other people who shared similar perceptions about school projects.

Don’t Take Things Personally: When a group of people is empowered to make a decision, leaders can't things personally. During the 2022 vote, several task force member made comments that felt like an attack on my leadership. "The district doesn't communicate well with the older generation" and "The district doesn't explain how property taxes work" were two common complaints. As much as I wanted to provide a rebuttal, I chose to bite my tongue and listen to their feedback. School leaders must put their egos aside and accept criticism if they wish to empower a group of decision-makers.

It Goes Down in the DM: Strong communication is vital for running a successful bond project. During both the 2020 and 2022 votes, we used a wide variety of communication tools, such as social media, snail mail, and the local newspaper. However, during the 2022 vote we put more of an emphasis on text messaging. Research indicates that text messages are read 98% of the time, while email is only read 20% of the time. With this in mind, most of the messages sent via email in 2020 were sent via text in 2022.

Sample texts we sent prior to the vote.

Answer All Questions: In 2020 I was bombarded with community questions. The more questions I received, the more frustrated I became. This was because I was not doing a good job of using the resources at my disposal. In 2022, we committed to answering all community questions. By creating an website with an FAQ page - as well as creating a system where questions were delegated to "experts" (architects, engineers, finance, tax, etc.) - we answered answer nearly every community question. This attention to follow-through built massive trust within the community.


Look at this Photograph: During the 2020 vote, I was advised against sharing too many pictures of the proposed building project. I was told that the community would begin to nitpick minor details of the project, which would result in more "no" votes. This was a huge mistake. During the 2022 vote, we insisted that our architects produce numerous photos to share with the community. Whenever new photos were released, there was a buzz within the district. I would highly recommend you drop new photos a few days before the vote, as this will create positive momentum in the community.

Project renderings can build positive momentum in a community.

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When I arrived at South Tama County, some people warned me that a bond referendum would never pass.


Due to mistrust of the school district, tough economic times, and division in the community, there was a belief that a new middle school was nothing but a pipe dream.


After the 2020 vote, I began to to have similar thoughts. "What if we never pass a bond while I'm here?" I worried.


However - once I realized that the rules for generating support are universal - I felt good about our chances.


Don't make my same mistake.


Rather than wrongly assume building projects require a different approach, have confidence that the best practices for generating buy-in with employees will also work for the community.

 

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