One of a school leader’s most important responsibilities is guiding the community through a process of asking money for building projects. Given they generate very little income on their own, most school districts 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 new projects 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 undertake similar projects.
The South Tama County (STC) 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, STC is noted for its cultural diversity. A large Hispanic and Native American population make STC 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 STC 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 STC 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, STC 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. As a result, when citizens are asked to approve property tax increases to fund school projects, these requests are often met with resistance.
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 asked the community to raise the local tax levy once again. However, this proposal was met with even greater resistance, garnering only 41% of the vote.
By the time 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.’ Now you’re saying ‘bond.’ 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 is spent after taxpayer money has been collected. Since they are not taking on debt, districts pay no interest and make no repayments. In contrast, recall that bonds are like mortgages, meaning money is spent before taxpayer money has been collected. Since they are taking on debt, districts pay interest and make annual or semi-annual payments.
Another 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. Losing isn’t fun - especially when it comes to something that required so much time and energy. "Maybe they were right" I thought upon recalling the numerous community members who had warned that a school project will "never pass."
Then I was reminded of the following quote by Henry Ford: "The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”
Rather than blame the community and complain about circumstances outside our control, we focused on what could be learned from the previous vote. Armed with a tremendous team of architects, engineers, tax experts, and communication specialists, we spent the next two years preparing for another opportunity.
When we reengaged the community in conversations about the middle school, building trust was our top priority. This meant approaching each conversation with a tone of vulnerability. By owning up to our mistakes during the 2020 vote – and explaining how this vote would be different – we aimed to restore confidence in the school district.
Our efforts paid off.
Community members grew increasingly supportive of the revamped project. They liked that we had listened to their concerns and made changes based on their feedback. As the vote neared, there was growing confidence that a building project could pass for the first time in nearly two decades.
When word spread that the vote had passed, we weren't surprised. What did surprise us 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.
Whereas the previous paragraphs make the process sound simple, few things consume more of a district leader’s time than a building project. And while I will spare you the finer details, the most important thing I learned while leading a district through two bond votes was that the rules for generating support are universal, meaning that the best practices used to generate support with employees are the same 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 skillset, I took bad advice and tried approaches that I would never do with employees. And when the results weren't what we had hoped, I shouldn’t have been surprised.
During the second vote, I revisited these best practices. Rather than behave differently because we were engaging the community, I fell back on the methods used to generate support with employees. And while bond votes depend on several factors, this revised approach was vital to our success.
What are those "best practices?" Here are six ideas to consider:
Empower those Affected by the Decision: When decisions are made, the voices of those affected by the decision must be heard. One mistake we made during the 2020 vote was that most decisions were made by school leadership as opposed to community members. Learning from this mistake, we created a task force and empowered community members to make project decisions (location, cost, etc.) while removing school leadership from those conversations.
All Voices at the Table: During the 2020 vote, I was reluctant to involve anyone critical of the school district in the decision-making process. “Positive supporters only!” I demanded. However, during the 2022 vote we invited citizens who were notoriously opposed to property tax increases to be on the task force. To my surprise, these individuals turned out to be some of our most loyal supporters.
Don’t Take Things Personally: When empowering others to make decisions, leaders can't things personally. Leading up to the 2022 vote, some committee members 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 complaints. As much as these opinions hurt, I bit my tongue and made changes based on their feedback.
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, including social media, snail mail, and the local newspaper. However, marketing research indicates that text messages are read 98% of the time, compared to only 20% for email. With this in mind, we placed added emphasis on text messaging during the 2022 vote.
Samples texts we sent prior to the vote.
Answer All Questions: In 2020, I did a poor job answering the community’s questions about the project. This led to stakeholders feeling like information was intentionally being withheld. In 2022, we committed to answering all community questions in a timely manner. By creating a website with a lengthy FAQ page – as well as funneling questions to our team of "experts" (architects, engineers, finance, tax, etc.) – we built considerable trust by following-through on every community request.
Look at this Photograph: During the 2020 vote, I was advised not to share too many renderings of the middle school project as the community could nitpick minor details. This was a mistake. During the 2022 vote, we switched gears and asked architects to produce several photos. Not only did the public love these visuals, each new photo release created a positive buzz in the community that lasted for days.
Project renderings can build positive momentum in a community.
When I arrived at South Tama County, community members feared that a bond referendum would never pass. Due to mistrust of school leadership, tough economic times, and division in the community, most people believed a new middle school was nothing but a pipe dream.
After the 2020 vote, I began to have similar thoughts. "What if we never pass a bond vote?" I worried.
However - once I realized that the rules for generating support are universal – I felt must better about our chances.
Don’t make my same mistake: rather than assume generating community support requires a different approach, fall back on the same principles you would use to generate buy-in with employees.
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