School Bond Issues – Three Things to Consider

Earl Crossland, AIA, LEED-AP  |  VSWC Vice President + Architect

Most public K-12 buildings and facilities are funded through voter approved bond issues. These are different from school levies which fund operating costs. As a taxpayer, how do you decide if a bond issue deserves your support and vote? Here are three things to consider in making your decision:

Needs:

What is the condition of existing schools? Do they have the required capacity for student enrollment? Do the buildings support current educational needs? Who makes those decisions?

Before placing a bond issue on the ballot, school boards typically hire architects and educational planners to assess the physical condition and educational adequacy of each building. Enrollment projections are also made to determine future required student capacities. This information is used to formulate a district-wide Facility Master Plan including cost estimates for building improvements. The process usually involves study committees and community meetings and can take up to a year to complete. You will be a more informed voter if you follow and participate in the process.

School buildings generally have a 50-year life span.
Unless you have children in school or volunteer in schools, you may not be aware of building condition issues. Even with involvement, you may not see all of the hidden expensive, roofing, HVAC, plumbing, electrical and technology systems that need to be replaced. Education has also changed over the last 50 years, so the design of the building itself may limit today’s best educational practices.

If the school board has done all this analysis and master planning, (their “homework”) you may trust that there is a true need for the bond issue.

Plan:

If you agree that there is a NEED to improve school facilities, then what is the specific PLAN to meet those needs? Do schools need to be renovated, expanded or replaced with new buildings?

A School Facilities Master Plan usually explores a number of options to meet the identified needs. Considerations include building conditions, student capacities, grade configurations, student transitions, bus transportation, site adequacies, expansion possibilities and comparable costs.

One of the most difficult decisions a school board has to make is whether to renovate a school or replace it with a new building. After assessing all of the building systems and renovation costs, the general “rule of thumb” is if a renovation will cost more than two-thirds of the cost of a new building, a new building is recommended. A Facilities Master Plan may also recommend replacing existing buildings with fewer larger schools to reduce ongoing operational and maintenance costs. Educational grade configuration changes may be needed as well. After weighing all of these factors, the school board then decides on a specific PLAN and calculates what bond issue amount will be required to fund the project.

You may not like every detail of the proposed PLAN, but it is helpful to keep the “big picture” in mind. Your neighborhood school may be affected positively or negatively by the PLAN, but the change may be for the greater good of improving education in your entire school district.

Cost:

You understand the NEED and PLAN, but what about the cost?
How will it affect your taxes? Is the cost worth the benefits?

Even if you don’t have children in school, improving educational facilities adds value to the community. Since bond issues are generally funded by property taxes, better schools usually increase individual property values. Good schools also attract businesses and foster growth which yields a greater tax base to support schools. New and renovated facilities are safer and healthier for students which improves student outcomes. New buildings are also more energy efficient, and environmentally sustainable, thereby reducing district operating costs.

Ultimately, you have to balance whether the cost to your family budget is worth the benefits that a school bond issue provides. By getting involved and understanding the NEEDS, PLAN and COST, hopefully your vote will become clear.