Keeping the “Public” in Public Schools
For many decades schools have been the center of our communities, providing gathering places and services for all citizens. Today, a smorgasbord of K-12 institutions compete to educate our children with unique and diverse options. Has this diversity of choice diluted the role of our “public” in supporting public schools?
As a state, Colorado continues to sit below the national average for public school funding; thereby entrusting that the local community will support the needs of each school district with respect to operational, maintenance and capital construction funds. This, in turn, is designed to facilitate new modalities in teaching and learning, and maintaining the tuition-free charter and independent schools with those same taxes. Do taxpayers today feel a strong connection to their community’s schools? Consider that if the inclusion of community education, engagement or events has dwindled and diverse options have grown, it may be less likely that communities will support future tax requests.
In a recent Bond Planning Symposium facilitated by DLR Group, a small spectrum of Facility Directors from Colorado school districts gathered to discuss bond and educational master planning processes. Our goal was to share stories and best practices that may ultimately lead to a bond campaign for capital construction, including new facilities, renovations or deferred maintenance. One district in attendance recently passed a state record bond program of $576M, while another, less than 25 miles away, failed a $220M bond issue. Several others in attendance also failed smaller school bond efforts. The event quickly ignited a debate of how “lucky” one community is over the other, how local politics and communities influence results, and how some voters support education while others only vote their pocket book. What is so different amongst these neighboring communities?
One differentiator is the district that passed the $576M bond issue took the time to craft a community-based master plan. District officials listened to community needs, shared their own analysis and vision and then worked together to prioritize the bond program. In doing so, they were able to increase the final bond amount to accommodate community priorities for early childhood education and a centralized kitchen. The bond passed with an over-whelming 60% approval.
Districts should include all of their stakeholders - not just administrators, parents or teachers - in needs analysis and planning. School districts are an important component of vibrant communities and should be understood and respected for what they provide, as well as what they need for their success.
As our nation and communities grow increasingly diverse, with citizens of all languages, nationalities and backgrounds, our expectations and offerings need to keep pace. Engage the community, get them into your facilities to show the amazing learning happening within and illustrate the needs that will continue to facilitate the best possible learning opportunities. We see success in collaboration and we recommend all Districts considering a bond issue create partnerships with the community they serve. As District leaders continue to advocate for, and develop, community-based planning processes to best engage with their communities, they will effectively keep the “public” in public schools.