School Bond Program Management: Piecing Together the Puzzle of Success
For something as inherently valuable as education, the means for updating its facilities are often less than straightforward.
The process for improving education community assets often relies on many steps over a complex timeline that involves a variety of different stakeholders. Education professionals typically maintain full schedules in keeping their schools functioning as well as possible. With so many complex and moving parts, many organizations benefit from partnering with a bond program manager with the technical expertise to ensure a bond management process runs smoothly alongside typical operations.
In this piece, we’ll examine the elements of a successful school bond program and the role of an owner’s representative, or bond program manager plays in supporting the client.
Read on or skip ahead:
- What is a School Bond Program?
- How Are Bond Programs Unique?
- How Are Bond Programs Similar?
- Planning and Front-End Alignment
- Stakeholder and Oversight Engagement
- Project Delivery, Documentation, and Reporting
- Setting Transition and Turnover
- Augmenting the School Bond Process
What is a School Bond Program?
A school bond program is a form of financing for capital construction projects that many communities rely on for improving their facilities. The projects that comprise a bond program can range from new construction or facilities renovation to addressing deferred maintenance. The cost for these often exceeds typical operating budgets so additional funds are sought from voters in general elections.
Falling into the category of general obligation (GO) bonds, school bonds are generally funded by leveraging property taxes, proposed during general elections. Beyond just improving the built environment for students, teachers, and the community – or in supporting the longevity of an asset – to pass bonds school districts must be thoughtful and strategic about the needs and interests of their community and appeal to those voters.
Bonds may focus on life, fire, safety, and ADA concerns. Some will also address more targeted goals like seismic improvements, pedagogy, or curriculum advancements such as career-technical education facilities. At their heart, bond programs and their passage are an expression of public trust by taxpayers.
Use of bond funds is also subject to financial management and procurement requirements established by state and local municipalities. In many states, additional grants and “match” funding are also available to help taxpayer dollars go farther to support education.
How are Bond Programs Unique?
No two school bond programs are the same. Some bonds may be focused on one or a few projects, while others may touch every school within the district’s portfolio. Depending on the size and complexity, a bond may be conceived with multiple projects, budgets, and project teams. It may involve multi-phasing to prepare interim facilities and swing spaces ahead of final projects.
To account for this variety and unanticipated conditions that can arise during construction, successful program management requires experience in facilities, design, educational paradigms, administration, all phases of construction project management, managing multiple levels of stakeholders, team leadership, and community relations.
How are Bond Programs Similar?
With unique goals and requirements, each school bond program will require processes tailored to their specifications. However, there are a number of key elements that are common denominators with any successful program.
A priority for any school bond program is maximizing the impact of locally approved funding by preserving as much money as possible for the projects themselves.
Part of this effort may involve minimizing overhead, but it’s important to consider the big picture as the greatest savings are found in efficiencies throughout the process. For example, a 1–3% upfront investment in pre-planning work can result in much lower costs over the full lifecycle of the project. This is one area where a program manager can have the most value.
In pre-planning, a school district may have identified immediate and long-range needs, but determining the best solutions to meet district needs can be guided and facilitated by the program manager.
Planning and Front-End Alignment
A crucial step for any school bond program is often one of the first. In selecting a project – and even prior to it – extensive planning begins with the identification of long-range district goals. This process can include focused due diligence such as facility assessments and enrollment forecasting needs (over at least 10 years), and eventually lead to project selection itself. Without these steps, projects may be compromised by short-sightedness or even subject to future rework if they are not considered in the context of a larger plan.
According to a study by Autodesk, poor schedule management is cited by 68% of project trades as the main cause of decline in worker productivity. Experience in construction management and front-end planning of a bond’s budget, scope, and timeframe components can help design the best execution strategy that maximizes approved funding impact. With this breadth of experience and knowledge, a bond program manager will be able to provide cost projections and cost-benefit analyses for potential project scenarios, and advising as such when a District is determining whether to renovate and upgrade existing facilities or initiate new construction.
In this stage of the school bond program, standardizing processes also provides the opportunity to bring together key project players and establish consensus in planning. Clear expectations for input and decision making need to be established to secure trust with these stakeholders so they can constructively engage in the design/construction process. From public engagement stakeholders and consultants to bond counsel and legal representation, coordination between the complete team early on can be an essential step in collecting necessary information to help inform project scope.
Stakeholder and Oversight Engagement
While establishing internal planning for anticipated projects is essential, they will not move forward without determining what the tax base will support. Knowing what taxpayers in the district can afford and what they value or view as necessary is key. To answer these questions, studies and polling can help tailor the dollar amount and scope of work before being put out for a vote. In-person meetings where community groups are represented can be essential engagement tools to connect with potential community champions and identify any initial dissenting opinions. Educating the public about bond goals and outcomes to garner support is also an essential investment.
After the bond’s passage, the real work begins to engage the many stakeholders invested in the success of a project including students/teachers/school-based staff, district personnel, and the partners/community members that may also use the facilities.
With a high level of scrutiny on expenditure of bond funds, districts should consider establishing an external oversight committee to observe the process. Typically comprised of interested community members, a bond manager will support the selection and engagement of the oversight committee to identify potential expertise that may be useful for supporting the bond and preparing reporting and presentations for their review across the bond’s duration.
At the end of the day, voters will want to know why a bond is needed: does it provide the best solution; what will it cost; can they afford it; and how will life continue in the meantime? To answers these questions and gain taxpayer support, a bond campaign will need to be outlined and implemented.
Strong Execution – Project Delivery, Documentation and Reporting
At the core of any successful school bond program is execution and delivery. While that may seem obvious, the path to effectively managing these steps is often anything but. Research of construction planning efficiency and delivery times by Wrike found that project planners typically have only a 58% accuracy rate when predicting delivery dates. These inconsistencies can have major impacts on staff, operations, and even student safety. In keeping complex school bond processes on track, documentation and reporting is key.
From start to finish, workflows and protocols are essential to facilitating review, approvals, and overall decision making. From augmenting project management resources at the outset of a project to setting consistent system specifications for maintenance following project completion, the establishment of strong document control and management systems helps ensure nothing slips through the cracks. The ability to quickly reference and produce consistent records also streamlines what can be complex legal processes.
When it comes to capital improvement projects, managing public contracts within 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. Ultimately, strong documentation and reporting in the school bond process prepares stakeholders throughout project delivery to help ensure staff needs are met and the safety of students is prioritized.
Setting Transition, Turnover and Community Use Expectations
While it’s easy to get swept away in the planning, engagement, and execution of school facility improvements, it’s important to remember that while the project itself is underway, life goes on. An important factor that is often, but should not be, overlooked is how people and programs are transitioned. This is because, as all educators are aware: the kids come back.
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.
Even the most well-established timelines and plans need to be prepared for unforeseen challenges. As a project progresses, the need to adapt is often inevitable. The ability to anticipate these challenges and quickly resolve them in the form of change management also becomes an important factor where the experience of an owner’s representative can prove invaluable.
Taking a Multidisciplinary Approach to Augmenting the Bond Process
Delivering a school bond, no matter the scale, is a complex process and a program manager isn’t successful without operating in an owner’s representative capacity. The ability to coalesce diverse sets of expertise from different team members and align them with individual client goals is essential to bringing the work and the promises made to the community to fruition.
As a multi-disciplinary firm, Otak provides a unique combination of program, bond, and construction management expertise, as well as knowledge and understanding of public procurement laws governing bond spending, local industry, and market knowledge. Our firm has proudly worked with many urban and rural school districts in bond development and delivery. Check out some of that work below!