Getting to Yes
By Laura Smith - Assistant Editor at MomentumMedia Sports Publishing.
If you want taxpayers to vote 'Yes' on a facilities bond project, you'll need more than a good argument. You need to gather facts, know your history, and find a way to reach out to voters.
You've dreamed about it for a while: a major facilities project. As you walk around buildings and fields at your school, you keep a mental list. The outdated weightroom. A scoreboard with a few lights that haven't worked as long as you've been there. Female athletes cramped into a too-small locker room. An over-worked field surface that turns to mud at the threat of rain.
It's not that your facilities are bad. But if someone handed you a check, you know exactly what you'd do to make them better.
For many athletic directors, getting that check means convincing tax payers to vote "yes" on a bond proposal. And in today's financial climate, that can be a tough sell. What are the arguments and strategies that convince voters a new athletic facility is a necessity?
In this article, we talk to four athletic directors who found the answer to that question. Voters in their communities, none of which is particularly affluent, approved major athletics projects ranging from $1 million to $15 million. They voted "yes" on a coliseum-style gymnasium with a sunken floor and seating for 1,500, fields and tracks with state-of-the-art surfaces, locker rooms, weightrooms, coaches' offices, press boxes, scoreboards, and lighting.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
You may wish your new facility had been built last year, but before you make the push to add major athletics funding to a community referendum, there is one important question to ask: Is now a good time to propose an athletic facility? In other words, understanding the bigger picture of your district's financial and student-achievement priorities is key.
"When we started thinking about our project, our first step was to look at how the district was doing overall-not just in terms of athletics, but in terms of academic needs," says Frank Thompson, District Athletic Director for Norman (Okla.) Public Schools. "When there are classrooms that desperately need to be built, that is not the time to pitch a big athletics project."
In Norman, where the community must approve major district expenditures with a 60 percent "yes" vote, that meant Thompson let several years go by while he waited for the time to be right. "All the major projects during those years were academic, and we understood that they were the priority, so we were patient," he says.
This year, the patience paid off. Voters approved a $2.7 million plan that resurfaced the district's two tracks and included new locker rooms, public restrooms, concessions stands, and field lighting. "I think a major reason they supported our project was because they could see we have put academic needs first," Thompson says. "They know we are committed to the total learning environment."
To get a feel for the district's overall goals and needs before pitching his project, Thompson worked with his superintendent and the district's business manager. "I met with them first to talk about whether the project was feasible at this time," he says. "That gave me a good feel for the chances it would be approved given the district's financial picture at the moment and other things the board was trying to accomplish."
Once you've determined that the timing is right to pitch a project, the next step is gathering the most pertinent information to illustrate why it's needed. Having detailed facts to support your project will help you clear the first hurdle, selling the school board on the idea of including it in a bond proposal. It will also help when you reach the point of presenting the project to taxpayers.
"From both the school board and the community, the first question you'll face is, 'Why do we need this?'" says Shaun Butler, Assistant Principal and Athletic Director at Ferndale (Mich.) Public Schools, where voters in 2004 approved a $15 million combined athletics and fine arts facility. "Being able to justify what you're asking for means going beyond generalities and providing hard evidence."
Specific data to gather will vary by school and project, but there are a few areas to consider when building your case:
- Growth in numbers. Often the best argument for a project is specific numbers illustrating overcrowding. How many athletes are sharing one locker room of what size? How many teams are sharing fields? What are the enrollment figures for your district today compared to five or 10 years ago? Have the numbers of teams and athletes increased significantly? And lastly, what are the projected enrollment trends for the next several years? "All the numbers need to be at your fingertips," Thompson says. "If you don't have them, work with your school's central office to get them."
- Safety concerns. Overused field surfaces and aging spectator seating can increase the risk of injuries and open a district up to liability. Safety factors helped Thompson argue successfully for his project. "We did an inventory and were able to say, 'This building is 50 years old and it's unsafe for the following reasons,'" he says.
- Competitive equity. Have surrounding districts consistently upgraded athletic facilities, leaving your school at a competitive disadvantage? This spring, when Breckenridge (Texas) Independent School District Athletic Director Dan Howard pitched an $8.6 million athletics project to voters, he focused on the message that the school's existing facility was severely outdated compared to neighboring districts. "We argued that a new facility would allow us to increase participation, have better quality practices, and run a more competitive athletic program," Howard says. Voters responded by approving funding for a coliseum-type stadium with a sunken floor, an auxiliary gymnasium, an athletic training room, new locker rooms, and new coaches' offices.
At Copiague (N.Y.) Public Schools, Athletic Director Pete Cesare used this argument to help get a new rubberized track last year to replace his school's dirt track. "I told the board that appropriate facilities would help us increase participation and thus be more competitive," he says. "And that turned out to be completely accurate. This year's track team was the largest we've ever had. The talent level is higher because so many kids came out, and in a couple of years, other schools are going to have to worry about us.
- Use by multiple groups. Gather data on how many students will benefit from the new facility. Include in your numbers varsity and sub-varsity teams and middle school and elementary students, as well as any non-athlete groups. Ferndale's project is a prime example: the new complex supports both athletics and fine arts, providing space for the school's state championship marching band to practice. "The fact that everyone in the community could find something to get behind in this project really helped it pass," says Butler.
- Financial impact. Will the project actually save the district money in the long run? This can be one of the most powerful selling points, as long as you can back up the claim with specific figures. Part of Butler's argument included calculating how much his project's turf field would save in maintenance costs over the existing grass field. Other athletic directors tallied transportation savings from no longer having to bus athletes to the town fields and the potential of raising funds by hosting large events.
- Historical perspective. One last area to research is the history of athletics spending in your district. When is the last time taxpayers voted "yes" to spending a large sum of money on athletics or recreation, how did it work out, and why is more money needed now?
"You need to know this because people in the community will know," says Thompson. "In our project, we asked to have our two high school tracks resurfaced, and people immediately said, 'We just spent $10,000 putting these tracks in 10 years ago, and you told us they were state-of-the-art.' I was prepared for that, so I was able to explain how the surface we bought 10 years ago actually had done its job and that now there are better products available."
Once a school board decides to include a major athletics piece in a bond proposal, the next challenge involves convincing the community that the facility is needed. As the resident expert on athletics and someone who regularly rubs shoulders with parents, an athletic director can play a very active role in seeing that a bond issue succeeds.
Before beginning to campaign for the project, however, it's crucial to understand the limitations imposed by your role as a school district administrator. Laws vary by state, but in general, it is not acceptable for an athletic director acting in his or her official capacity to pressure community members to vote a certain way. Instead, you must focus on presenting facts and allow voters to draw their own conclusions. It's a fine line, but an important one.
"When you're on the clock, so to speak, you can't approach a parent and say, 'I need you to vote for this,'" Cesare says. "But you can say, 'I want to make sure you're aware that we're putting a bond proposal forward. These are the reasons we're proposing it, and here's what we'll get if it passes.'"
That distinction was very important for Butler in the 12 months leading up to his district's 2004 vote. He spent countless hours serving as one of three chairpersons for his district's "bond marketing committee," but he was careful to do that work on his own time. "When I talked to parents during games, I would just provide facts," he says. "If another committee member called me during the school day, I'd say that I had to wait and talk after my day was over," he says. "I went by the book to make sure my actions would not raise any questions."
On their own time, however, athletic directors can campaign as actively as they want for the bond proposal, and Butler threw himself into that role. His committee's first step was galvanizing people who supported the project. This was key, according to Butler, because projects can often pass simply by getting the right people to the polls.
"We started by identifying 'yes' votersthe people in the community who supported the project," he says. "From the city, I got a list of all registered voters and a list of everyone who voted in the last two school board elections. We had a 35-member committee, mostly made up of parents of athletes and band kids, and we broke the list up among them, giving members the names of people they knew when possible.
"Each member was responsible for getting a list of 20 'yes' voterspeople they had personally talked to who had committed to voting for the proposal," he continues. "Everybody got at least 20, and many got a lot more. We put each of those names into a database, and by the end, we had a list of 2,500 names. The 'yes' voters became the focus for most of our campaign."
That strategy worked for Thompson as well. "Twenty-five percent of voters are going to show up every time and vote 'no', no matter what," he says. "We didn't worry about them. We focused on talking to the people who were interested in the project and hammered the message, 'Don't be complacent. We need you to get out and vote or this might not happen.'"
In addition to talking to people one-on-one, Butler recommends setting up formal presentations to discuss the project with as many segments of the community as possible. He created a large poster and a flyer illustrating the facts he had gathered to support the project, and he and other committee members took the show on the road, holding meetings everywhere from senior citizen homes to summer band concerts and civic clubs. "There wasn't a place we didn't go," he says. "If anything happened that summer where people were gathered together, I was there with my poster board. I made over 40 presentations in three months."
Tailoring a specifically to the audience can increase the chances your message will get through. "When I was speaking to young people, I joked around a lot," Butler says. "With people around my age, 40-year-olds with kids, I spoke from my perspective as a parent who wants to see my kids have better.
"When I spoke to senior citizens, I learned to be very factual and appeal to their sense of community," he continues. "I talked about how students who are playing sports stay in school and achieve more academically, and how they're doing something positive
Thompson also found that senior citizens needed more facts and more explanation of the needs. "Many senior citizens made comments like, 'We didn't have elaborate facilities when I played sports, and it was good enough for us,'" he says. "Well, I've been a football coach for many years, so I'd take the time to explain how the game has changed over the years and also how kids' expectations have changed. I made sure they knew I understood their feelings and told them that things were a lot different when I played, too.
Players and coaches can also be strong allies in getting a project passed. "I met with all 36 of our high school teams and 16 middle school teams and said, 'There is a bond issue coming, and this is what will happen if it passes,'" Butler says. "I gave them flyers to take home to their families. We had athletes volunteer to go door-to-door handing out literature, and they were our best salespeople."
For Butler's committee, the last three months before the vote was a crucial time. "We called that our 'blitz,'" he says. "Using our database, we sent mailings to all our 'yes' voters. We set up tables around town to register voters. And we continued to be as visible as possible, attending any meeting where people would give us a chance to talk. Then, a week prior to the vote, we called all our 'yes' voters on the phone to remind them to go to the polls."
On election day, Butler's committee was still hard at work. Committee members set up at polling places with signs, and checked voter lists to keep track of who had voted. Anyone on the 'yes' list who hadn't voted by noon received a phone call. "We estimated that if we got 40 percent of our 'yes' voters to the polls, the proposal would pass," Butler says. "We got about 50 percent."
Ferndale's $15 million bond proposal passed 1,409-545, and as a result the school got a new synthetic turf field with a new track, bleachers, press box, and lights. It renovated a practice football field, upgraded softball and baseball fields, refurbished all of its locker rooms, renovated and expanded its athletic training room, and put a new floor, bleachers, and sound system in its main gymnasium. It also built an auxiliary gym with team locker rooms for football and track.
TOUGH, BUT REWARDING
Taking an active role in a bond issue's passage can certainly be time-consuming, but the rewards speak for themselves. "Selling the proposal was an enormous undertaking," Butler says. "Shy of making All-American as a track athlete in college, this may have been the hardest I've ever worked for something. But it was absolutely worth it."
Cesare, whose district's proposal also passed by a wide margin, agrees. "It took a lot of time, but it was time I didn't mind spending," he says. "I knew if we could get it passed, we'd have something amazing, and that's exactly what happened. One of the neatest parts for me has been the calls from other school boards, administrators, and coaches wanting to come and see our track and field, or to look at how beautiful our gym floor is. We certainly weren't used to that! We're very happy to say, 'Come on in and let us show you around.'"