RF case study 1

The rocky - yet successful - road to the BEST Grant: Wold helps Rocky Ford School District secure funds to enhance school facilities

In the early 2000s, Rocky Ford School District underwent an intense inspection to review opportunities for facility improvement. Both the Washington and Jefferson Junior/Senior High schools were inspected by the Colorado Department of Education and received a Facility Condition Index (FCI score) of around 70, meaning that it would cost 70% of the cost of a new building to fix all concerns.

Most of the building systems and finishes were 65-70 years old and there were looming safety concerns, failing mechanical systems and various facility improvements that needed to be made to ensure a safe and productive learning environment. Following the breakdown of the Washington school’s main boiler, the district engaged Wold Architects and Engineers to develop a facilities master plan for resolving these challenges.

The master planning process confirmed that they were not able to keep up with the maintenance of aging facilities. In response, the district requested the community's help to secure BEST Grant (Building Excellent Schools Today) funding that would enable the design and construction of a major addition and renovation to create enhanced learning environments and resolve their facility challenges.

One key aspect of the BEST grant is that it requires a matching contribution from the district’s taxpayers. Rocky Ford underwent two bond elections to pursue the requisite matching funds. The district’s first attempt at the bond took place in 2020 and failed. District leadership and the Wold team spent time reflecting on why the election failed and decided to pursue funding again in 2021 with a new strategy and approach.

Two of Wold’s Colorado leaders, Josh Grenier, principal, and Michael Clough, education planner, helped the school district strategize and communicate the benefits of the funding to community members and other key stakeholders. In 2021, Rocky Ford School District passed a bond election and was awarded a $39.9 million BEST Grant to construct a replacement facility for the Washington and Jefferson schools.

We recently sat down with Kermit Snyder, Rocky Ford School District’s Superintendent, and Sandra Lundquist, board president, to learn more about the 2020 & 2021 bond processes and how Wold’s team supported the school district’s eventual success.

Read the Q&A below:

Tell us about the Rocky Ford community and the campaign. How did the strategy differ between year one and year two of the election?

Kermit Snyder:
When we pursued grant funding in 2020 for the first time, we faced fierce opposition from the start. COVID prevented gathering for educational events and school tours intended to show the community the dire need for improvements. To combat this, we hosted online forums and YouTube Live sessions, but they weren’t as successful as in-person events hosted prior to the pandemic.

One month into the process, the opposition also came out strong. They flooded Rocky Ford with “Vote NO” signage and radio ads. Overall, it was challenging for us to get organized and overcome the limitations of the pandemic.

Sandra Lundquist:
My family and I have lived here since the ‘60s. Since I was a kid, it was clear that Rocky Ford was an extremely tight-knit community. Many people still cry “I bleed watermelon juice” in honor of our district’s mascot, The Melloneer!

In the first year of our Best Grant pursuit, I served on the committee with the school board. Because of COVID, many of our ideas couldn’t be properly executed. It also failed the first time because we didn’t engage key stakeholders in the election process or clearly communicate the effects this bond would have on our district and community.

Vote "No" Banner
One of many “Vote NO on 4B” banners from the opposition.

If you could cite 2-3 things that made a difference in those two years, what would they be?

Kermit Snyder:
We realized we needed to educate everyone involved about the tax system in Colorado and ensure voters had the correct tax impact in mind. We found that the actual impact would be less than the public first thought. Our community has a high level of poverty and about 75% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. This was a powerful message to share and we used it to our advantage in the second round.

We took a multidimensional approach to the campaign and made phone calls, hosted events and created signage and advertising to get the right message to the community. It required a team effort.

In the second year, we also decided to change our strategy. This time, when we asked the community for a match, we had a better plan in place. The board and I agreed to give up half of our reserves ($1.6 million) and put it towards a cash distribution. This, along with the funding we acquired from the local Rocky Ford School District Foundation, lowered the cost of the bond on taxpayers from $16 million to $8.9 million.

Though the opposition came on just as strong again the second year, we did a better job of communicating the need for the bond and how it would affect taxpayers. Through additional educational events, registration drives, and support from the Wold team, we were able to conduct more honest and open conversations with our community. We even received donations from prominent landowners in the area.

Sandra Lundquist:
Our main challenge and accomplishment during the second attempt was discrediting the falsehoods that were communicated by the opposition. With the help of Mike and Josh at Wold, we were better equipped to address the tax implications that concerned the community. They helped provide us with messaging and thoughtful communication pieces that eliminated their fears. I also scheduled Kermit to speak at the local fire departments, assisted living facilities and many other groups to further connect with the community. We were lucky to have a superintendent that was willing to sit down and do the math with voters to help them understand the tax impact. Kermit’s public speaking had a very positive impact on the effort overall.

We also had more involvement from the board and community. Early in the process of the second year, we held a meeting to encourage the board to generate a list of influential community members and invite them to learn about the project. This resulted in an ad in the local paper that included a long list of people publicly pledging their support for the project. It also helped secure contributors and a budget we could work with as opposed to the limited budget we had in year one.

The Key Communicator Committee also provided the help I prayed for to move the campaign forward. Lucinda (Cindy) Abert, Rocky Ford’s scholarship liaison, was instrumental in organizing community meals, researching contacts for the local newspapers and creating mailers. Shari Moreland, school board treasurer, managed ongoing correspondence with the state about our budget. Alan Frantz, school board vice president, transported and placed our campaign banners around town. Darrin Garcia, former board president, worked with the county treasurer to gather up-to-date voter lists.

This extra assistance made a huge difference in our success. I strongly recommend engaging key contributors early on in the process. Proactivity is key!

How would you describe Wold’s partnership throughout this journey?

Kermit Snyder:
The opposition was relentless. They would tear up our flyers and spread falsehoods. It truly took a toll on our whole team. Michael and Josh were an incredible emotional support duo. They were in constant communication with us, whether it be for brainstorming strategies or simply lending an ear when we needed it.

They and the Wold team were instrumental in helping us develop more robust ideas for our messaging and marketing efforts. When our local connections fell through, they provided contacts to create signage and other supporting materials.

Sandra Lundquist:
The Wold team acted as true partners. They were in constant communication with us and shared fresh ideas regularly. They provided recommendations and solutions and helped create and supply resources.

In our weekly meetings, they were invaluable in helping us create a strategy that included “thank you voters” banners and additional signage, mailers around key voter registration dates, and social media posts. They helped us see the bigger picture and provide ideas and encouragement throughout the campaign.

How were you able to remain positive during the campaign when faced with negativity?

Sandra Lundquist: Ultimately, it came down to the fact that we had an incredible team and support system in the second round. Part of the reason we were able to stay positive is that we could lean on Wold. Kermit was also a secret weapon because he’s a naturally positive person whose passion for the project encouraged the rest of us. The opposition’s intense stance only made us come back harder the second year. We were better informed and had a team full of positivity and encouragement that resulted in our eventual success.

The Rocky Ford renovation plans include a new two-story addition built onto the Junior/Senior High School with the demolition of Washington and Jefferson schools. The new facility will serve students in preschool through 8th grade. The addition will also include a new library and an auxiliary gym for PE classes, Junior High sports, JV games and practices. The new build and renovation will ensure high quality education services and access to safe and secure facilities for Rocky Ford students for many years to come.

We understand that funding is a major phase of any renovation. Our team at Wold Architects and Engineers can be a resource to clients at any phase of a project including securing grant funding. Through our collaborative planning process, we can facilitate the necessary conversations to ensure your campaign has the strategy, messaging and enthusiasm it needs to succeed.

Josh Grenier, AIA, M. ED, is a principal and can be reached at jgrenier@woldae.com. Michael Clough is an education planner and can be reached at mclough@woldae.com.

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