Planning a School Expansion? Here’s What to Do When

As we begin a new school facility planning process, I’m often asked the same question: What do we need to do when? There can be many moving parts, leading up to one vote. Knowing all the steps and how much time to allocate for each part positions school districts for better results.

For that reason, I often partner with school leaders as they are just beginning to consider a referendum to create a timeline. This helps the district better understand the steps and timing necessary to be prepared for the referendum date while also enabling them to better communicate with their community.

Here’s a look into that process and the key milestones to achieving a successful building referendum:

  • Referendum Vote: Set a date
    For planning purposes, start with the date of the vote and work backwards. The 60-day review period by the Department of Education followed by a minimum 20-day publication notice is required by state law for most projects. That means that at minimum, everything needs to be set and ready to submit at least 80 days before the election. In many cases, schools – and the “yes” committees -– need more time to create and execute an effective communication plan. Begin with the end in mind and think beyond the state requirements.
  • Communicate the Why: 3 months before the vote
    This step overlaps with the 80-day public notice period above and typically requires more than the 80 days. The time given to develop and execute a communication plan will vary by the size of the district, the current understanding of the community and the scope of the project. While much of the active communication with the community may come during the final 6 weeks before the vote, effective communication strategies share the story for three months (or more) leading up to the vote. This does not include the planning that needs to be in place before any communication is created and released.There is a lot of work that needs to be done here. Start the communication planning early. Schools see better results when they engage a communication consultant when the visioning and planning begins and not wait for the final board approvals to begin this step.
  • Finalize and Board Approvals: 2-3 months
    During the second phase, school leaders gain the initial board approval to move forward, confirm the numbers associated with the plans and then gain board approval on the referendum plans. Given the board votes and necessary meetings required, it is best to give this phase 2-3 months to complete.
  • Develop a Plan: 3-6 months
    This is the one area that schools most often underestimate. In a recent example, a school district with 5,400 students spent eight months of planning that resulted in the successful referendum for five buildings. In another case, a school district with about 500 students spent two months planning for two buildings.The length of the planning period largely depends on how the school engages the community. Most districts choose some level of community engagement with any referendum. This process has become quite extensive in recent years to help communities understand the need and the necessary funding to pursue the creation of 21st Century learning environments. (Read common planning mistakes). 
  • Facilities Assessment: 1-2 months
    The timing of this assessment can vary. You likely will do an initial tour with the committee and consultants working on the project. A more comprehensive facility assessment, developed by your architect, will include a thorough report of the condition of your facilities to help the team more fully understand where you are – and more importantly, how far you are from where you want to be. So often planning only includes the additional space needed, but doesn’t consider necessary maintenance and replacement of the building’s infrastructure. This can cause problems with the project later when unanticipated expenses related to infrastructure consume dollars originally earmarked for facility expansion or remodeling.
  • Initial Planning Meeting: 1 month
    If you’re considering a facility project, gather a few key leaders and engage an architect to talk through facility challenges and your goals. This will help you determine where you want to go. So often, the plan that schools thought they would employ turns into something else, even after this first meeting. (Read why). This meeting can be informal and lead to additional planning meetings before a facility assessment is even conducted. This will eventually lead to engaging others in creating a facilities vision. But, it can come months before any other steps are taken.

It is common for a school district to ignite the referendum process at least a year or more before the vote, conservatively. That still can be seen as aggressive, when compared to a fundraising campaign for a major capital project in the nonprofit sector. The difference is that schools do not have a “quiet phase” where they raise support before the campaign becomes public. It all depends on one day – one vote.

Schools relieve this pressure by engaging the community during the planning phase. When the community members are involved in the process, they help create the vision, understand the need and inform others. It’s a natural way schools “raise support” before election day and leverage every part of the timeline to reach the end goal.

Download the complete step-by-step guide to School Facility Planning and Community Engagement.