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Community Colleges

Beyond the Bond Campaign

Public relations efforts should continue after a bond passes. Once the votes are counted the real work begins.
University Business, Aug 2008

IT'S BEEN MONTHS, EVEN years, of campaigning for your bond, but once election day is over you can rest, right? Wrong--that's when the real work begins.

Smart community college leaders start working on construction even before the ballots are in. Three weeks before the vote, Penelope H. Wills, president of Northeast Iowa Community College, says she asked her CFO to begin planning as if the bond had passed. "I was Scarlett O'Hara in the dining room and the drapes were coming down," she quips, recalling how she felt the bond just had to pass. Her faith is all the more inspiring, considering the institution's previous bond had failed.

Even if your bond loses there are positive benefits, according to Pam Cox-Otto, founder of Interact (, a marketing and research firm that has worked with community colleges around the country. "Whether you win or lose, your organization is stronger than when you started," she notes. "When you go for a referendum and lose, it feels like people don't like your baby. Yet, even if you fail, if you conducted your campaign correctly, you will have gained political capital with the community and they'll feel they owe you something."

When a bond is successful, 'a lot of the districts are drunk with money.' -Gin Yang-Staehlin, California State Chancellor's Office

When NICC lost its bond, administrators learned from their mistakes. "We had the benefit of having three other districts pass bond levies on the ballot in Iowa, and we zeroed in on the one that did not pass theirs the first time. I said those are the people I want to meet, because they know what they did wrong," says Wills.

When a bond is successful, be prepared for unrealistic expectations among the staff and the community. "A lot of the districts are drunk with money," says Gin Yang-Staehlin, a facilities specialist with the California State Chancellor's Office. "The faculty and board go berserk, and all of the special interests come out. We are seeing lots of overbuilding by colleges, and then they come to the state and ask for money because they ran out of funds. A carefully thought-out systematic plan, done well upfront, is the best idea." After all, a bond master plan and a real master plan may well be different.

In addition to faculty approval, the college must consider what taxpayers are willing to fund. A lot of these problems can be avoided with research up-front, says Cox-Otto. "Colleges that conduct surveys before the bond to find out the community's image of the college and learn the public needs are able to construct a solid building plan. There is a price point taxpayers are comfortable with. "

Cox-Otto says the internal audience may have a dream project, but if the public won't support it, try to fund the construction through alternate methods. At NICC, administrators started an advancement foundation to raise money for needs that won't be covered by the bond money. "We're diversifying our revenue streams by hiring a grant writer and soliciting donations from individuals and corporations," explains Wills.

When residents in the community see their tax bills go up, be prepared to show them what they're paying for. Jan Bernstein Chargin, public information officer for Gavilan College (Calif.), recommends keeping the public informed with tools such as annual reports, events such as groundbreakings, and community forums.

The West Valley-Mission Community College District in Santa Clara County, Calif., faced a unique set of issues. A man owned rental property in the district but did not live in the service area and therefore couldn't vote on the bond measure.

He sued the district, claiming that since landlords would have to pay increased taxes, they should be allowed to vote on a bond measure, not renters. This case delayed construction, costing the district significant amounts of money due to legal fees and increased construction costs, until the board finally settled with the complainant.

In the meantime, the district had to let supporters know why construction was stalled. To keep the public informed, the district wrote opinion-editorials for the San Jose Mercury News and the Silicon Valley Community Newspapers, ran updates on the district website, disseminated news releases, submitted letters to the editor, and sent mass e-mails and voicemails to the staff and faculty. Large signs visible at the entrance to both campuses, West Valley in Saratoga and Mission in Santa Clara, also thanked voters for passing the bond measure.

Communication is key, according to Jennifer Aries, district director of public information and marketing for the Chabot-Las Positas Community College District in California's East Bay. "The work really begins the day after the bond passes. Both internal and external communications are critical, so it's important to have a communication plan in place that will serve both audiences." She points out that faculty, staff, and students are emotionally invested in an institution and the future results of the bond measure, making it important to keep them informed of all that is happening around them.

"Sometimes we assume that since the work is being performed on campus that everyone knows what's happening," Aries says. "Quite often, that's not the case. We're all so busy in our own areas and departments that it's difficult to keep up with the activities that are happening campuswide. These types of gaps should be filled by your communication plan."

Working with various constituency groups can also reduce expensive change orders. Shaun Blaylock, managing principal of CCS Group (, part of the GKK Company, an architecture and construction firm with offices in the Middle East and California, says in addition to academics driving facilities, colleges must consider community acceptance.

It is important to set priorities and make sure everyone is on the same page, he advises. "If you do this, you will head off significant problems in the future, such as delays and cost overruns. Contrary to popular belief, cost escalation has not primarily been due to marketplace factors but rather to managing the expectations of the various constituencies that demand increases to the project scope."

Wills recommends hiring a construction management firm to reduce change orders. "We're not big enough to have a facilities manager, so we hired an outside firm to help us select an architect and talk turkey with the construction workers," explains Wills. "I can talk about our mission all day, but I don't know anything about construction." The construction management firm was less expensive than a general contractor, worked closely with the architect, and monitored the project from beginning to end.

All community colleges in California that pass a bond measure are required to establish a Citizen's Oversight Committee. With their help, WVMCCD administrators were able to get funding from vendors to send newsletters out to the public about construction progress and obtain money to run regular ads communicating traffic conditions and building updates. All communications directed people to the district's website for the latest information.

Iowa doesn't demand community advisory boards, but NICC created one for each campus anyway. "We want to assure voters that we are good stewards. We had detailed plans of buildings in our campaign but still wanted the public to feel they were part of the decision-making process," says Wills. "We said here are our needs, we have priorities, but we want you to be a part of this process." Press releases announcing the members of the advisory committee, who are well-respected members of the community, were released. "They also immediately got calls from their friends about what color to paint the buildings!" laughs Wills.

It's in your best interest to involve the community, says Cox-Otto. "The alumni in community colleges stay close by. It's best to bring antagonists into the fold and not have them be a thorn in your side." Finally, take the time to celebrate your success. At NICC, the board of trustees shared their annual Christmas dinner with the campaign volunteers. "Internal and external groups all need to be recognized," observes Cox-Otto. "The job of a servant leader should include going person to person and saying thank you."

Stanley Arterberry was the only CEO in more than 40 years at WVMCCD that was able to pass a bond, and that was largely because of his one-on-one communication skills. Sometimes walking door to door, as he did, and meeting directly with community leaders is more critical than any other campaign tool.

All of this research, public relations, and oversight will pay off in the long run. Everyone who has ever passed a first bond measure almost immediately begins talking about the next one. So put your walking shoes on and get to work. The last campaign may be over, but the next one is about to begin.

Ruth Carlson is the director of public and governmental affairs at West Valley-Mission Community College District in Saratoga, Calif. The two colleges in Silicon Valley enroll 20,000 students. Previously she was the director of public affairs at California State University, East Bay.