School Bond Program Management: Where experience matters.
In some ways, Owners’ Representatives and Bond Program Managers are very much alike. Providing expertise on the whole continuum. Taking projects from the conceptual through all stages of development and construction. Ensuring a seamless transition to a fully operational building. But that is where the similarities end.
A bond program is multiple projects with multiple budgets and multiple project teams. It requires multi-phasing, with complex financing and accounting. A bond is ultimately an expression of public trust and what taxpayers want, and it is often politically charged. It is for these differences that successful bond management requires experience in implementing bond campaigns, all phases of construction management, managing political agendas, competing priorities, and even community relations.
“This is what an experienced bond manager will bring to the table and this is the stuff we get excited about. Delivering on the promise a bond represents, managing the public dollar—it is something we are passionate about and what we have spent years doing for school districts in Oregon and Washington,” states Joshua Dodson, Senior Project Manager at DAY CPM, an Otak Division.
Bond Campaigns and Pre-Bond Services
A critical aspect of Bond Program Management, especially for school districts, is all of the pre-bond work that lays the foundation for success. A school district may have identified immediate and long-range needs, but determining the best solutions—the optimal projects to meet district needs—is complex and beyond the scope and experience of district staff.
Project selection is the first step in the development of a bond or bond program. Working with an experienced bond manager who is equally versed in construction management and front-end planning of the bond’s budget, scope, and timeframe components is beneficial. With this breadth of knowledge, the bond manager will be able to provide cost projections, as well as cost-benefit analyses for proposed solutions, whether solutions involve renovating and upgrading existing facilities or new construction.
As a multi-disciplinary firm, Otak provides a unique combination of bond management and construction management expertise, as well as knowledge and understanding of public procurement laws governing bond spending, local industry, and market knowledge. The firm has also worked with a number of school districts in bond development. Seaside and Oregon City school districts are primary examples of complex multi-year/multi-phase bond programs DAY CPM has ushered through to successful completion.
Second to project selection is determining what the tax base will support. Knowing what taxpayers in the district can afford and what they will tolerate, or view as necessary is key. To get at these answers, districts need to conduct studies and polling so they can then tailor the dollar amount and scope of work to put out for a vote. They will also need to educate the public to garner support.
An experienced bond manager understands this entire process and the subtle nuances that can affect the outcome of a yes or no vote. From polling questions, or even specific word choice within a question, to voting strategy and timing with an election, and how the bond is worded can all impact the outcome. Competing agendas and politics are invariably part of the overall equation and an experienced bond manager can help guide the district through the entire pre-bond process.
Of course, public perception is key to the passage of a bond measure, and educating the public on the merits of a bond, the reality of the problems to be solved, and the validity of the proposed solutions the bond covers is vital. Voters will want to know why a bond is needed; does it provide the best solution; what will it cost and can they afford it. To answers these questions and gain taxpayer support, a bond campaign will need to be outlined and implemented.
“As bond program project managers, we like to be involved with every aspect of the pre-bond phase. Ideally, we are there during pre-bond services, not only with the long-range facilities planning but also the voting polling that takes place, to find out what the scope is to that bond amount,” Dodson states. “And the most ideal is when we’re under a pre-bond contract that allows us to continue on to manage the bond when and if it is passed. Managing a bond through the full continuum ensures the greatest outcomes.”
An example of this type of full continuum bond program management is the bond program and subsequent projects Otak has managed for the Oregon City School District. In this case, Otak was on the pre-bond contract, with Joshua Dodson acting as Bond Manager, guiding the pre-bond planning, the long-range facility planning, and assisting with the election vote polling process. The pre-bond then rolled into the actual bond program contract after the voters approved it. At this point, Stephen Wasserberger, Senior Project Manager at DAY CPM, became the bond program manager going forward. “This is an ideal situation because we are managing a 4 to 6-year bond program, and we are also now helping them with the next bond planning and continuing to build on the work already completed,” Dodson explains. This level of bond management gives the district a real advantage to ensuring continuity in project management and best-case scenarios for keeping costs down.
Bond Management and Capital Improvement Projects
When it comes to capital improvement projects, managing a public contract like a school bond requires an understanding of public procurement laws as they pertain to architectural design, engineering, construction, and consulting contracts. Contracts in the public sector are more complicated than the private sector, and tend to have higher levels of scrutiny and oversight—every expenditure requires public justification.
The mistake some districts make is not investing in a bond program manager. It comes down to the principle of first cost—paying for some things up front that might be hard to swallow, but the investment pays for itself in the full lifecycle of the project. Choosing not to spend 1-3% upfront to do all of the pre-planning work can result in much higher costs in the long run.
“We are good at aligning everything in the very beginning so that everyone is on the same page, pulling in the same direction rather than pulling in different directions. Sometimes there are competing agendas and priorities and when we align things and line everybody up, it just moves smoother. We move slower at the outset, but slower is efficient, and efficient is fast,” states Henry Alaman, Senior Vice President at DAY CPM.
School districts, whose primary focus is educating students, do not have the level of expertise required to manage capital improvement projects. An experienced bond manager has this level of expertise, knows what questions to ask upfront and how to align everything in the beginning in order to move complex projects from concept through the design phase and into actual construction in the most efficient manner.
The bond manager will be able to step into the role of owner’s representative and guide the district in all decisions. For example, district staff cannot be expected to be able to read a two-dimensional architectural rendering and be able to translate that into a fully functioning space and what it is actually going to look like when it is put into the 3-D world. A bond manager with expertise in capital improvement projects will be able to bridge this gap.
Successful Transition to Fully Operational Facilities
At the other end of the continuum is the transition to a fully operational building. This final phase is critical, but often overlooked or taken for granted. “We have seen projects come to completion, the owner moves in, and then it takes another 18 months before they know how to operate the building,” Alaman attests.
Eighteen months is not atypical in a complex new facility where the existing facilities employees are not familiar with the new technology, systems, or equipment. To ensure the transition is seamless, all staff should receive the tools and training necessary to operate the building. Additionally, documents (drawings, plans, manuals, etc.) should be provided and stored electronically so they can be easily accessed.
With the passage of a school bond measure, the public is placing their trust in the school district to deliver on specific outcomes. Ultimately, the bond manager is an extension of this trust and is responsible for guiding the spend-down of the approved budget and protecting the public and the school district’s interest. “As the bond program manager, you are the single point of responsibility—providing complete oversight of all committees, project, and construction managers. It’s such an important job and what makes it all work is one word: trust,” Dodson states.
Experienced bond managers have established relationships with school districts, built over years of successful project management, and earned public trust. And it is these strong working relationships that enable projects to proceed smoothly and efficiently and deliver the best possible outcomes.