So you have an idea for a school facility, or maybe you’ve heard of an opportunity? You have a gut sense that a facility project would be transformational and exciting, as well as daunting and risky. Do you feel confident in how to get started, and how to engage with your Board about it?
Here is a checklist of the first three things to do as you and your Board take initial steps exploring a new school facility project.
1. Gather information from peers
When you buy a house, you go to open houses, watch sale prices, and ask friends and family for information of their experiences and referrals to agents and lenders. This is all to get a sense of what decisions lie ahead for you as you start down that path. You can learn a lot from engaging with others, versus solely reading and studying information.
How do I make the most of talking with a peer?
A productive interview mixes the two lenses of planning and curiosity.
Planning: When you reach out, share your intent for learning more about facility projects, and share your interview questions. By sharing your questions you give your peer some time to check on details and consider their answers. You also give them a chance to consider other people to join the conversation for certain topics. You will ideally be talking with the person who made most of the decisions, signed the contracts, signed any loan documents, gave direction to the partners, and/or is operating the facility right now.
Curiosity: As you gather data and answers to your questions, keep listening for behind-the-scenes stories. If possible, have the discussion while actively touring the facility as this can spark your host’s memories and allow you to ask about what catches your eye. As you wrap up, ask for an introduction to someone else who’s been in your shoes.
How do I organize what I learn?
Your interviews with peers are a type of benchmarking. Using the interview questions form will help you remember all of the questions you want to ask and keep all of the answers in a consistent place.
When you have information about a handful of facilities, then you can generally compare them in specific criteria, like cost and size. This provides the context to know what is average, what the high bar is, and what would be distinctly unique. What you’ll learn from your peers will fall in three buckets:
- Facility description
- Facility partners
- Lessons learned
2. Outline your vision
As you learn from your peers, you can start to rough out your ideas for your facility. You can use the same interview questions that were used for benchmarking. They can help prompt you to think about some specifics, allow you to capture bits and pieces as they come, and let the vision start to take shape.
Areas in the template that you aren’t sure about or you want to further challenge, can be the emphasis for further peer conversations. The template can also be a great foundation for talking with potential partners, asking for their opinions and perspectives on trends and things to consider about what you’ve filled out and what you haven’t yet.
Remember that the vision will be dynamically changing as you continue to engage with it, so don’t worry about it being thorough and perfect with your first draft. When you have a preliminary vision for a facility project, as well as some context, it’s a good time to start engaging with your Board.
Being upfront with what you know and don’t know yet, shows your humility and respect for the complexity of the process, which can actually build trust. You can use this fun 12-question true/false quiz to see how much you know. Framing your vision for what is “average”, what is “raising the bar”, and what would be a “unique identifier”, is a great way to open conversations and awareness of both opportunity and risk in the project idea.
One way you can engage with your Board is to circulate the latest versions of the interview forms and your vision template. These can help Board members think about your ideas and gather their questions as well as their advice. Potentially they can offer additional introductions and input on key aspects of the vision.
Getting your Board engaged at the very early stages will also let you identify the Board member(s) who will partner with you and help you navigate the long series of mandates and approvals that lie ahead.
3. Next Steps
Your next steps to keep moving forward with your facility vision may require some financial resources and may start increasing public awareness of your idea. You want your Board’s support and you do not want to catch them off-guard with any surprises when they get questions from the community or see financial statements.
Ideally, your Board offers you a mandate to proceed with a range of actions, within a specific budget and timeline. They might set-up a committee to support you, and they might be curious to visit some facilities to increase their own knowledge to face the challenges and opportunities ahead.
Here are some prompts for framing an initial mandate:
- What do you want to spend money on over the next six months?
- Where might the funds come from?
- Who do you want to more formally be talking with in the next six months?
- Who might join you in those conversations?
- What might the first risk point be that the Board will need to address, and when?
- What might the Board need to approve next, and when?
The scale of your next steps may depend on the culture of your Board, its priorities, its frequency of meeting, and its comfort with risk. It may also depend on external factors like land availability, grant deadlines, and development initiatives.
Even with robust mandates, regular and consistent updates with your Board will be invaluable for strengthening the partnership you’ll need as the project only gets more complex going forward.
With these first three initial steps, you will be well-positioned on the path to a school facility project. These initial steps likely won’t relieve your gut instinct that it will be a daunting and risky venture, but they will help you be better prepared and confident to navigate the risks as you make the most of opportunities, toward a project that meets your goals for success. From here, we recommend you visit SchoolBuild, a free resource from LISC and Capital Impact Partners that goes further into the details of charter school facility planning.