Education Week - November 29, 2017 - S8
High Costs and Wary Taxpayers
Make Capital Projects a Hard Sell
BY DAAREL BURNETTE II
t's a sales pitch to a tough crowd, and for local
school leaders the stakes couldn't be higher:
how to get the millions of dollars they need to
build new schools and keep existing ones up to
Against a backdrop of reluctant taxpayers,
tight budgets, and competing priorities, officials
are forced to get creative in their efforts to secure the
bond measures and other capital financing they need for
school facilities, both in terms of construction and the
continuing maintenance and upkeep.
Those efforts can involve enlisting parents as foot
soldiers for door-to-door canvassing, as well as
reaching out to voters through television ads and
scripted phone bank calling.
"School referendums have become highly
sophisticated campaigns not unlike legislative races or
presidential races," said Scott Croonquist, the executive
director of the Association of Metropolitan School
Districts, an advocacy organization in Minnesota. "It
always comes down to communicating with the public
and making sure they understand why the referendum
is needed, what the money will be used for, and how
students and [the] whole community will benefit."
Patricia F. Deklotz, the superintendent of the
4,000-student Kettle Moraine school district in Wales,
Wis., used a series of high-definition videos, negotiation
with her opponents, and a grassroots social media
campaign to win passage in 2014 of a
$49.6 million bond measure that paid for several capital
maintenance projects including the creation of new
learning spaces and technology upgrades. The county
hadn't passed a bond since 2000.
"Schools do a disservice to a community when they
need to speak in education-ese jargon," Deklotz said.
"People are smart and they care about schools. We need
to bring it to them in a way that they understand and
relate [to] so that they can be informed."
Officials in the 13,500-student Battle Grounds school
district in southeast Washington didn't give up last year
after a bond measure asking for $80 million for new
construction fell 5 percent short of the necessary 60
percent approval. Shifting their messaging and relying
on a new state school funding formula that will cut
local taxes, the board voted last month to place another
Education Week * November 29, 2017
request on the county's ballot in February, this time
asking for $224.9 million to replace three schools and
build two others.
"It is discouraging when the majority of the people
who voted, voted yes, but we still didn't get the
funding," said Battle Grounds Superintendent Mark
Ross, who is not allowed by law to campaign for or
against the ballot measure. "We've decided to go back
to the voters and say, 'Hi, we still have the same needs,
many of you felt the same way.'"
Bearing the Cost
The nation's school systems have long been heavily
reliant on local taxpayers to pick up the bulk of school
Local and state officials on average split evenly public
schools' operating expenses such as teachers' salaries
and textbooks. But, for the $50 billion Americans spend
on maintenance and school construction each year,
almost 85 percent of school costs come from local
coffers, according to the 2016 "State of our Schools"
report from the National Council on School Facilities,
the U.S. Green Building Council and the 21st Century
At least 12 states don't pay for school construction
And it's exceedingly difficult to get school
construction bonds passed at the local level.
Between 1960 and 1985, as an anti-tax fervor
swept the nation, the voter-approval rates for school
construction bonds plummeted from 75 percent to
35 percent, according to a 1997 study by researchers
Michael W. Kirst-now the chairman of the California
state board of education-and Frederick Wirt.
Though the passage rates vary from state to state,
school funding requests still face a number of political
and demographic headwinds.
Even though recent surveys show 92 percent of
Americans think schools should be upgraded, more than
half the nation's taxpayers today think their taxes are
too high, according to a 2014 Pew Research center poll.
Complicating matters, almost 1 out of every 3 counties
in America has more residents age 65 and older than
they do school-aged children, according to the U.S.
Faced with such challenges, some superintendents
fate of bigticket school