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What You Should Know When Developing Your School Referendum Budget

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Developing and managing a referendum budget can be a delicate balancing act. Once passed, a facilities referendum budget represents a fixed amount, carefully drafted with specific characteristics. Big expectations and excitement, however, combined with the push and pull of different stakeholder groups, it can result in a project that exceeds its budget. The importance of communication throughout each stage is critical to keep stakeholders on the same page about budget, resulting in a carefully planned project.

Administrators and District leaders must understand that changes to the project scope need to be zero-sum. In most cases, money spent on a new feature must be taken from elsewhere within the project budget. When crafting a referendum budget; it is important to stick to the budget that must live throughout design and construction. Below are key considerations for the development of a referendum budget.

Understand Your Space
A critical step in developing the referendum budget is constructing a building space program. A building space program is a detailed accounting of the spaces within your school – from classrooms to conference rooms and everything in between. As a foundational planning document, the building program forms the basis of your project and details the total number of new and renovated square feet within the project’s scope. If appropriate, your architect should meet with your staff and collect input on the building’s current deficiencies and which big picture facilities improvements will better support their practice. This input may help the architect develop a pre-referendum building program that is more reflective of the District’s needs.   

Plan for the Future
When developing the building program, make sure you and your architect are considering both current and future needs. Enrollment projections from demographers can help inform the district’s future space needs. Before engaging in a years-long facilities project, spend time with your Board, teaching and learning experts. How do you envision your district’s approach to teaching and learning changing to support students’ evolving needs? Are there new courses or subjects you need to deliver to ensure your students are college and career ready? After you’ve identified these teaching and learning drivers, determine what facility improvements are needed to support your educational program goals.   

Consider Sustainable Options
As you and the consultants develop your building program, spend time with your leadership team establishing sustainability goals. Though green energy systems can sometimes be expensive – as can the other facility features that support a more wholistic view of wellness and sustainability – adding sustainable solutions to a facility can support school district goals and act as a learning opportunity for students and staff. It’s crucial to factor in these features pre-referendum as they can dramatically impact the project budget.

Implement Specialty Spaces
Another significant budgetary driver to watch closely are specialty spaces. Specialty spaces like performing arts centers can be significantly more costly on a per square foot basis than other spaces. Once the referendum has passed, adding a specialty space or expanding its square footage can quickly put pressure on the project budget. A clearly articulated project narrative and set of preliminary specifications helps ensure that cost estimates are in line with design goals.  

Despite the best efforts of you and your team, it is still possible that your project may be over budget early in the design phase. Don’t panic. The design process is fluid, involving a lot of give and take between client and consultants. Through close collaboration and iteration, you and your team will identify opportunities to bring the project back on budget. It is important to set clear expectations: tell your team you want the flexibility to begin the project under budget and add design features into the new space, rather than removing features to reach your budget.

Andy Lyons,
Engagement Specialist

Andy Lyons is an Engagement Specialist for Eppstein Uhen Architects (EUA). Andy is based in our Madison office and supports school districts in their community engagement efforts.