In 1998, two years after rejecting a $390 million proposal, voters in Houston swallowed hard and signed off on a $678 million construction package — at the time, the largest-ever school bond issue in Texas. In return for their investment, taxpayers would get 10 new schools and renovations at 69 other district facilities.
Three years later, the Houston Independent School District approved the last of the contracts covered by the bonds, and after district administrators tallied up the spending, they still had a hefty chunk of change in their pockets — $103 million.
“We were very fortunate,” says Dick Lindsay, senior project executive for the Houston district's Rebuild 2002 program. “We have a good project administration team.”
As the economy continues to stagnate, districts that can demonstrate the ability to complete their construction projects on time and on budget will be the ones most likely to persuade cost-conscious constituents to open their wallets for capital improvements needed in the future. With thorough planning, focus, teamwork and discipline, school systems such as Houston and San Diego have proven that they can manage massive and complicated construction programs without becoming mired in financial and bureaucratic difficulties.
Before a school or university can manage a building program effectively, it has to have a plan and the money to pay for it. Most often, that means putting a proposal before voters.
With the 1996 bond defeat still fresh in their minds, Houston school officials made sure that their proposal two years later was rooted in a foundation of solid data. In the past, critics knocked the district for letting politics determine who got scarce funds for building upgrades. So officials spent $3.4 million and had an outside company perform a comprehensive study of all facilities in the 210,000-student district.
“We did an independent assessment of all our facilities,” says Lindsay, “and ranked their conditions worst to first. Then we made a commitment to do the worst first.”
To ease the public's concern that the district might bungle such a complex program, the district formed a bond oversight committee of architects, contractors, business leaders and parents.
“They brought expertise to the table, as well as support,” says Lindsay. “They help us to operate in a commercial environment instead of a bureaucratic environment.”
The San Diego Unified School District went a step further when it sought a $1.51 billion bond proposal in 1998. Ballot language mandated that the district establish an oversight panel. Geoff Patnoe, executive director of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, says that was critical in his group's decision to endorse the bond issue.
“In California, we have a definite sense of skepticism,” says Patnoe. “Oversight is one of the things voters like to see.”