5 Steps School Districts Can Take for Construction Project Buy-In and Approval

The saying “it takes a village” couldn’t be more accurate than the buy-in required for school construction projects. School board members, administrators, teachers and staff, families, the broader community, and taxpayers are all stakeholders whose early and sustained support is essential for projects to be greenlit, funded and delivered smoothly.

Support is earned by being a steward of the district’s assets — the safety and learning environment of students, timely completion, and, of course, finances. 

Coordination, scheduling and quality estimating are the primary tools in every contractor’s toolbox. But, what is often overlooked is that those tools don’t have equal control and influence at every project stage. 

The earlier that planning occurs, the more options are available to get the most out of the district’s budget and ensure that dollars provide the best value. In addition, involving stakeholders before what historically would be considered the start of a project builds confidence critical for “yes” votes.


Hallsville R-IV School District – Hallsville Primary School Addition

As more states like Illinois and Missouri allow districts to use delivery methods other than the once prevalent Plan and Spec, Design-Bid-Build bidding, the dramatic impact of an early collaborative process is proven repeatedly. With the increasingly popular Construction Manager at Risk (CMAR) delivery method and the design-build method, the construction manager (CM) is secured early along with the design team. Since they are legally responsible for delivering the entire project on time and on budget, a CM is actively involved earlier than is typical of a general contractor to refine the design and select contractors that can deliver their work and materials within the set budget and timeline. 

As one of the state’s early adapters, the Hallsville School District used the CMAR project delivery process for its $7.3 million bond-funded capital improvement plan, including a 31,000-square-foot addition and renovation to its primary school and other district-wide improvement projects. And is currently underway with their second CMAR project.

Hallsville Primary New Gymnasium

“The CMAR process involves S. M. Wilson and the design team working together early in the process. They push together very early about design and costs. That can be helpful to a school district to help make sure the best use of limited resources is utilized. At the end of the day, it makes the board more invested in the entire program,” said Hallsville School District Superintendent John Downs.

Your district does not need to know which delivery method will be used or even have a bond passed to establish the structure and reap many benefits of early planning. Below are five steps a district can take to earn project buy-in and approval. 

  1. Create (or Update) a Campus Facility Assessment and Master Plan – Schools can’t afford costly surprises when voters are required to greenlight funding and students’ learning experiences are on the line. Districts should assess their facilities for needs related to aging infrastructure and any anticipated student population growth several years into the future. This process filters needs from wants and ensures that projects are tackled in the proper order. The resulting data and insights build a compelling case when appealing to voters for funding.
  2. Establish a Building and Grounds Committee – Comprise a Building and Grounds committee with experts and representatives from various parts of the school community. The ideal composition is four to eight members including the district’s superintendent and/or chief financial officer; facilities personnel; one or more school board members and building principals; and a couple of community members. This composition can provide valuable perspective, and these diverse members can serve as liaisons and advocates to the school board and community.
  3. Involve the School Community Early – The time to involve the community is before a bond is put on the ballot, not after a project is approved. Doing so establishes a commitment to transparency and a willingness to hear all perspectives. Early and frequent communication helps establish expectations and reduces the rumor mill in an age where social media can spread misinformation quickly. 
  4. Introduce an Architect and Construction Manager Early – When a CM and architect are hired together, programming precedes schematic design. This real-time, collaborative partnership has a better chance of leading to a program based on available funding and prioritized needs versus design ideals. Early collaboration can speed the release of bid packages so that long-lead-time materials arrive in proper sequence and align the project price tag with current market conditions. This is critical in this era of extremely long material delays and price increases. Project bids developed a few years ago frequently come back 20% higher, leaving districts and project teams to scramble. A collaborative architect, CM and owner dynamic avoids a siloed project culture that easily leads to finger-pointing versus working together when things go awry. Furthermore, involving a CM experienced with school projects early also allows them to identify niche funding sources that can maximize project budgets.
  5. Learn from the experiences of other districts – When vetting a project team and deciding which project delivery method to pursue, learning from the experiences of similar districts is invaluable. Some of the questions to ask include:
  • Did the relationship between the contractor, architect and district feel adversarial or collaborative? What was the variance from budget to completion?
  • Did the construction manager or general contractor have full-time, on-site supervision? 
  • Did your board stay engaged and feel informed? What forms of communication were used and how often? 
  • What were the benefits and drawbacks of your various project delivery approaches? 

School associations such as Missouri School Board Association (MSBA), Illinois School Board Association /ISBA), Missouri Association of School Administrators (MASA), Illinois Association of School Administrators (IASA), Missouri Association of School Business Officials (MOASBO) and Illinois Association of School Business Officials (IASBO) also can provide valuable information sharing, educational resources, professional development opportunities, job-specific certifications and networking opportunities.

For more information about various project delivery methods used on school projects, contact Amanda Bohnert, Chief Marketing Officer, at amanda.bonhert@smwilson.com

As the area leader in public school construction, S. M. Wilson’s Pre-K to 12th-grade education project expertise includes $1.5 billion in local work for more than 65 schools in more than 30 school districts, including constructing more than 6,000 classrooms.  The firm has managed $3.6 billion in CMAR projects with 80% of the firm’s education work utilizing this delivery method. S. M. Wilson is working on school-build programs for Alton CUSD 11, Columbia Public Schools, Edwardsville CUSD 7, Francis Howell School District, Hallsville School District, Jefferson City School District, Ladue School District, Pattonville School District and Rochester CUSD. Learn more at smwilson.com/markets-education.