When a bond referendum comes around for a school district, it often is the culmination of years of planning, strategizing and communicating to the public.

Especially in these economic times, passing a building referendum is challenging. Complete transparency among the superintendent, school board and community is essential to communicate the message of need thoroughly.

Define the need

"Need" could be based on many factors — enrollment growth, required building maintenance, or facilities improvements to support educational delivery. Whatever the cause, bond supporters should get the community involved early in the process and keep the school board informed.

Developing a bond program should follow meaningful discussions about programs, facilities conditions, future directions and what is needed to support education properly. Before a school system knows what to ask for, it has to determine its needs. That begins with a thorough understanding of the issues and involves looking at programs, functions, facilities, operations, maintenance, energy efficiencies and other components.

School leaders should obtain the support of the school board before beginning a needs assessment. Typically, the superintendent or chief administrator initiates the effort, and once approval is given, the process begins.

The next step is hiring a consultant to guide the process. A consultant should have expertise in education facilities planning, group facilitation, architectural/engineering disciplines and cost estimating. A school system's financial adviser will be able to provide support in bonding and tax impact. Needs are determined by assessing how the facilities support educational programs.

Committees

For a planning assessment study, a school system should establish a communications and decisionmaking network, starting with an executive committee and a steering committee. The executive committee is the clearinghouse for decisions and direction of the process. The steering committee is the working group that explores and analyzes ideas that form the direction of a building program.

For a good cross-section of participants in the process, the steering committee should include parents, business leaders, senior citizens, government officials, school administrators, teachers, students and community leaders. Is there a unique community program that should be represented? Early in the process, identify citizens who can become strong proponents for the referendum.

The consultant facilitating the process will help the steering committee to create a plan. In varying degrees, the committee will address "how," "what" and "where" students will learn.