All posts by Kevin Hickman

Brookwood Elementary School of Genoa City Jt. 2 School District rendering

Genoa City Jt. 2 Superintendent Kellie Bohn Shares Challenges, Lessons Learned, & Tips to a Successful Referendum

Genoa City Jt. 2 School District,  a 4K-8 district, was struggling to meet their current needs for staffing, programming, maintenance, and space due to limited State funding. They were also going up against an aging Brookwood Elementary School that was impacting the quality of learning for students and experiencing a significant increase in unexpected maintenance costs, making them unable to address the ongoing issues. To combat this, the District presented two referendum questions to their community on February 21, 2017:

The first was a referendum to exceed the revenue cap, which would allow them to meet their current budgetary needs, as well as addressing their shortfalls in resources, programs, and staffing.

The second was a debt referendum to modernize the learning spaces to support the educational needs of today’s students.

We sat down with Genoa City Jt. 2 School District’s Superintendent, Kellie Bohn, to learn more about the referendum process for the district.

How will the approval of the two referendums benefit the District?

The first question we asked of the community was the operating referendum because that was really critical to us. We were one of the lowest spending districts in 1993 when the revenue caps were imposed statewide, so we have just been struggling to stay afloat. This referendum was just needed money to upgrade resources, to help with staffing, to even allow us to maintain current levels, and expand a little bit and grow. This referendum is going to be so beneficial and have a big impact on our District.

The second question was on the facilities project. We have a 1908 elementary school building with four classrooms. Over the last two years, we have had $100,000 of unexpected maintenance costs in that building alone. The facilities funding is to renovate that school and to rebuild new classroom space, and then to add a cafeteria and complete remodels of a portion of the space. I think the impact on the elementary building is focused on upgrading and really making it more conducive to 21st century learning.

What was the most challenging part of the referendum process?

The most challenging part of the process was just making sure we were getting our message out and that people had the information. We’re just never sure if everyone has the right information or even enough information.

A funny story,  about a month and a half prior to the referendum, I was at a school event and I was standing with a poster board of the referendum information and I was getting comments like “Oh yeah, this is going to be a great project!”, like they thought it had already passed! They were all in favor and they didn’t realize there was a voting piece! So it’s just making sure people really understand their role and the importance in their role.

Genoa City taxes are high for a small community, so even though both questions brought no tax impact and no increase on the mill rate, it is still sometimes a hard sell. We projected out two years of no tax impact, knowing that although there would never be a tax impact from these questions, there could be other things that come up two years down the road, which we are not aware of that might raise that mill rate. So you don’t want to say there will never be an increase in the mill rate, because people don’t always understand the variables. There was some late night conversation, not on our Facebook page, but other Facebook accounts in the community about concerns about the tax rate and what that really meant, so that was unnerving, because we felt we had done a good job of communicating the tax impact.

How did you educate the voters, parents, students, and staff on the sense of urgency to take action now, rather than later? 

Well I think when you talk anything about the messaging or any of the promotional materials, I mean that’s really where I feel it was such a benefit to work with Kevin and Becky from JP Cullen. I talked about the communication being the most challenging part, but before we had met with them, I just wasn’t sure how to even frame that information. How do you know? Where do you start? How do you package it in a way so that people don’t just glaze over it? I felt from a process standpoint, Kevin really just walked us through the process.

We could personalize the process as much as we wanted to, but he could just make some really solid recommendations. It’s reassuring to have somebody else looking through it with that other lens, so that it is voter friendly and makes sense. I think working with JP Cullen was the difference between putting out things that made sense to us and putting things that really were more marketing smart.

I feel like I can give Becky half thoughts, and then she can pull it together and that has been so nice. They have been through it before, just really that whole timeline piece. And, if there was something that we talked about that hasn’t been effective, Kevin was really honest about it. So you really feel like it’s okay and are only spending time on the things that are really going to have impact.

Brookwood Elementary School in Genoa City Jt. 2 School District referendum logo

After the votes were counted, voters approved a $6.1 million referendum to build an addition and remodel the existing elementary school, on top of the approval of a $255k operational funding referendum.

 

If you could recommend one lesson learned to any other Districts considering a referendum, what would it be?  

Be thorough in your process. I think that is one of the things that helped me during the community engagement part, because we had started talking as a board almost a year before. Talking about the financial challenges, doing a facility study, really kind of getting a little bit more immersed in what the challenges and issues were, so by the time it got into doing the sharing of information with the voters and public, I felt like I had internalized those things because you lived it for so long, it just kind of became a part of you. So, I think, especially as a new Superintendent, going slow with your process, really taking the time to gather that information and working with strong partners. I think all of those things are really important.

When we first started talking about the potential for referendums last year, I had gone to a couple of sessions at the WASB conference about the mailers and the stuff, and how your construction manager can be a partner. And I thought I don’t know if that is really necessary, I mean I can write my own stuff. And even as we got closer to the process, I really wasn’t sure. Kevin reached out and I think honestly that made all the difference. That would have been such a mistake not to make use of that service and Kevin and Becky’s expertise. It was probably was one of the main reasons that the referendum passed. Don’t underestimate the power of that service, because it is a deal breaker.

Kevin set up a meeting to develop a preliminary timeline and I think that it was at that meeting, you know you’re really looking at the scope of what has to happen in a very short time. I’m thinking oh yeah this is overwhelming. Glad that some of this stuff is already put together, so I think that was that point when I thought yes I absolutely need some help and guidance in this, and it feels much safer to be doing it with somebody who has been through it before. Not trying to recreate the wheel. And then, as soon as you start seeing the product, you’re like, there’s no way we could have done anything like that by ourselves!

What communication tools were the most useful in spreading the word about the referenda? 

The mailers and those stickers! We got a lot of mileage on the stickers and just reminding parents to get out and vote. On both Monday and Tuesday, we stickered our kids before they left school, to remind parents to vote. Our parents are really hooked into social media, but our larger community would not be. And our District is not a District that routinely sends home mailers.

Because the strategy was different, it really made an impact. And because they were so nicely done, it generated a lot of talk in groups that we probably wouldn’t have reached through our social media.

Are you finding your District is in the same situation? Wondering what the next steps should be? Check out Kevin’s blog from last week, The Roadmap to Yes – Referendum Series.

Kevin Hickman is JP Cullen’s Referendum Expert who has supported over $300 million in facility and operational referenda in just the past five years. If you have questions about referendum services, please contact Kevin at kevin.hickman@jpcullen.com or 608.754.6601.

Elementary students wearing JP Cullen hard hats holding Vote Yes sign at Edergton Community Elementary School

The Roadmap to Yes –
A Referendum Series

In an educational climate that calls for innovation and flexible learning environments, while demonstrating good financial stewardship and fiscal responsibility, how do you get to the point where the taxpayers in your District will support a referendum?  Whether asking for permission to issue bonds or exceed revenue limits, there is a proven, adaptable, and scalable process that you can utilize to give your District the best opportunity for referendum success.

Referenda are a fact of life, often a necessity, for K-12 and Technical College education leaders.  However, education professionals are in the business of educating, and often don’t have the necessary experience, time, knowledge, or support to plan and execute an effective referendum effort.

A Referendum Process is a Team Effort

A referendum process is not a thing or an event.  It must be an ongoing, daily part of the overall strategic planning and execution in your District, around facilities, operations, hiring the best staff, and educating students.  The process requires the involvement of the school board, administration, staff, parents, students, media, local thought leaders, supporters, detractors, and ultimately the taxpayers.  It really is a team effort.  Consensus among the team is critical, and consistency of the team’s approach is a must.

Referenda are not easy.  In fact, referenda take an incredible amount of hard work by everyone involved.  However, hard work (and smart work) does pay incredible dividends on Election Day.  The great news is successful referenda are not the result of some secret sauce or elaborate scheme.  Successful referenda are often successful because a simple, proven plan is tailored to the unique dynamics of a District, and the plan is executed as intended.

The Roadmap to Yes

JP Cullen has developed a referendum process called The Roadmap to Yes, created by our Referendum Expert, Kevin Hickman, who has supported over $300 million in facility and operational referenda in just the past five years.  We are going to share these steps month by month as a guide for your District and encourage you to contact Kevin Hickman at 608.754.6601 or kevin.hickman@jpcullen.com with any questions along the way.

Tune in next month for our first step or download the Referendum Roadmap here for a sneak peek.

Check out how we teamed up with Edgerton School District to get their referendum passed!

Elementary students at Edgerton Elementary Community School wearing JP Cullen hard hats

Spring 2016 Referenda Results

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A significant level of support was provided for public education by taxpayers across the State of Wisconsin via the April 5, 2016 election results. The statewide trend of Wisconsin’s school districts utilizing referenda as a tool to fund both operational (exceed the revenue cap) and facility needs (issue debt) continues to grow.

According to the Department of Public Instruction:

There were 34 operational referenda on ballots statewide totaling approximately $160 million in recurring and non-recurring requests.

» 85% of operational referenda were successful statewide, totaling approximately $140 million

» The largest successful non-recurring operational referendum was in Oshkosh, totaling $28 million over seven years

» The largest failed non-recurring operational referendum was in Chilton, totaling $5.2 million over four years

There were 37 facility referenda on ballots statewide totaling approximately $694 million in requests.

» 70% of facility referenda were successful statewide, totaling approximately $490 million

» The largest successful facility referendum was $92.5 million in Superior

» The largest failed facility referendum was $47.7 million in Grafton

For each referendum, the community had a unique set of needs and a unique story to tell. Each community likely worked to engage their taxpayers to varying degrees in the planning process for their referenda. Where referenda succeeded, three fundamentals were surely true:

1.  The District made sure the taxpayers clearly understood there was a referendum on the ballot

2.  The District answered the taxpayers “Top 10 Questions” in a clear, consistent, and transparent manner

3.  The District created a clear sense of urgency that now was the time to take action, rather than some arbitrary date in the future

For those Districts that failed to gain approval for their referenda in April, the November election looms large in the near future, and the deadline for school boards across Wisconsin to pass resolutions to authorize a referendum comes even sooner in late August.

Regardless of whether a District will come back with a revised plan for their taxpayers to consider, or will be presenting a referendum for the first time; and regardless of what candidates are running for President, statewide, or local races, the above three fundamentals will be critical to success in November, and beyond.

To learn more tips like the three fundamentals to passing a referendum, contact Kevin Hickman for your copy of “The Roadmap To Yes”. The tools and best practices outlined in his book were recently used at Edgerton School District to plan and execute this successful referendum – check out this video to learn more!

 

Community Surveys Are A Necessity

Every District I work with, without exception, consistently receives advice from me that I truly hope they heed, “Survey your community!” Surveying your community can only help, never hurt, your planning process for referendum, community engagement, or strategic planning.

Is surveying cost prohibitive? It does not need to be; and besides, what is the cost of failure? Is surveying time intensive? It does not need to be; there are great consultants out there that specialize in efficiently developing surveys and analyzing survey results.

If your District is considering going to referendum, engage you survey consultant the same time you bring aboard your construction manager and architect. Too often, Districts engage a survey consultant too early in the planning process, before they have the ability to accurately identify potential facility solutions and costs, or too late in the planning process, after they have already established priorities and solutions.

As I ask School District Administrators and Boards for information that I need to inform strategy and craft tactics, too often I get answers like “my gut tells me…” or shrugged shoulders. That just won’t cut it. Having the right information, in a timely manner, can mean the difference between success and failure when engaging your stakeholders.

Smiles shine as Parkview School District breaks ground on $17 million school project

After several failed referendums and countless hours of planning, meetings and community engagement efforts, the $17 million project to construct the new junior/senior high school at the current elementary school was approved in April.

Parkview students – past and present- were part of the crowd Tuesday morning as the Parkview School District broke ground on the school’s long- awaited $17 million construction project.

Several close to the project spoke, including Bryan Brauer, co-chair of the referendum committee, Steve Lutzke, Superintendent, and high school senior, Brenna Rosser, about what this change would mean for the community, staff and students.

ParkviewGrandOpening_4

Somerville is the architect leading the design of the new school while JP Cullen is the construction manager.

The current plan is for foundation and exterior wall work to be completed by January. The interior work will finish up in the spring with site work wrapping up shortly after in the summer. The new school will be ready for classes to begin in the fall of 2015.

Once that phase of the project is completed, the work to remodel the current elementary school into the new junior/senior high school will start in the summer of 2015 and continue into the first semester of the 2015-2016 school year.

This project is close to Joe Schwengels’ heart, JP Cullen’s On-Site Superintendent, as he currently has three sons in the district.

“The thing with construction that I get the most enjoyment out of is seeing the building done and completed. With this one, it will be cool because I’ll actually be using it,” he said.

ParkviewGrandOpening_9

School Board President Clay Hammes and daughter with On-Site Superintendent Joe Schwengels and son.

What are the five things every District should do before saying the word “referendum”?

Talk of facility planning, hiring of consultants and scheduling a referendum typically begins with a small group of people in the District, whether administration, staff, parents or students, noticing a vulnerability in the District. This vulnerability often presents itself in the form of a deficiency in facilities, whether perceived or actual. The threat of losing ground in some way sparks these people into action, and they in turn try to communicate that sense of urgency to others within the District, most often leading back to District Administration.

The biggest mistake most Administrators make from the start is charging full speed ahead without knowing which foot to put in front of the other, which is understandable, but generally leads to an inevitable outcome – starting over a few months down the road. Before you ever consider going to referendum, a few important things must happen first. By working with your construction manager early, long before you have to worry about the specifics of paint colors, there are five things you can do to ensure you lay the groundwork for successful outcomes, months, and even years down the road.

So what are the five things you need to do? Well, the first one you have hopefully already checked off the list. You have engaged your construction manager. Today, most Districts engage a construction manager first, and not because they are 100% set on a plan to build something. Rather, they don’t know if they need to build something to address their deficiency, and they need an expert to help them figure out the answer – and most important, what it will cost. Steps two through five center around engaging the remaining team of experts, and getting everyone around the proverbial table to talk.

Next you should engage your architect, and your construction manager should assist you in evaluating this critical partner. Architects help the team identify functional requirements, preferences, and design priorities, as well as sort through the maze of building codes and zoning requirements, and help develop master plans for your space needs. Another seat at the table is occupied by your surveying or polling consultant, who will work with the team to define how the District will get valuable feedback from the community, prior to defining the final option or options for referendum. Your school finance consultant also plays an important role in evaluating the District’s current debt load, borrowing capacity, and many other factors to help you make smart business decisions.

Finally, once you have a had your initial meeting with your group of expert consultants, then it may make sense to form a small group of individuals drawn from faculty, facilities staff, administration, parents, taxpayers, large landowners, business owners and other constituencies from the community solicited for involvement in an initial facilities committee, which will be tasked with reviewing the current state of District facilities and then forming a larger facilities committee should the District move past preliminary facility discussions.

So, when the word referendum is about to cross your lips, take a deep breath and have a seat. When you have come to your senses, pick up the phone and give me a call, and lets talk through the five steps I outlined above. You’ll save yourself months of wasted time, a few gray hairs in the process.

Download this referendum roadmap to get you started down the right path: Referendum Timeline 11X17