We’ve all seen a school facility building process go astray or not deliver the end result the school district – and its families – were hoping for. It’s disheartening because we know school facilities can either limit or expand learning possibilities.
Over the past 15 years, it’s become more challenging to find a K-12 school that has been successful at executing their school facility plan – and building new facilities – without strong community engagement from the beginning.
This often includes establishing a Facilities Vision Committee that involves teachers, administrators, other staff as well as a variety of community members, with and without children. Together, this group can create a vision of facilities for the school district that drives all the future plans.
Here are five common mistakes that schools make in facility planning:
- Not engaging a broad enough group.
Beginning the planning process by forming a Facility Planning Committee or Facility Planning Task Force has become a standard. Most schools are doing it. But where they fall short is not engaging a group of people that truly reflects their community. It’s often a struggle to get representatives from minority populations. It’s easier to engage people who likely agree with the administration’s thinking. Time spent here creating a group that covers a broad spectrum of your community will be critical to the outcomes – for years to come.
- Steering the process too tightly.
Districts sometimes believe they know the right answer and bring the committee together with an idea that they will simply validate what the district already knows. This is a mistake. It is important for school district leaders to trust the process and their community. After all, these are their schools and the district needs the community’s approval (at the voting booth) to move forward. Engage the community through the process and focus on seeking first to understand.
- Going too fast.
Creating a vision and developing an action plan around it takes time. It varies by the size of the group and the goals. Too many times, I’ve seen schools push to do what typically would take seven meetings and do it in four. Their intentions are good. They want to be respectful of the members’ time. The challenge is that an expedited process does not give the members time to evaluate options, listen to each other, see the rational and come to conclusions together. They simply get too much information and not enough time to process it and reach consensus.
- Reducing the amount of time at each meeting.
Planning is a mental process. It takes time to gain enough information to have a fruitful discussion and begin to make decisions. It typically works best to meet for three to four hours at a time. When school districts try to do it in two or three hours, they typically short circuit the process, spend more time repeating information and end up having more meetings.
- Choosing the wrong time.
Yes, something as simple as choosing the wrong time of day to meet can derail the facility planning process. Schools have a tendency to want to host the meetings later in the evening after 6 pm. The result, most often, is that people will not agree to participate or even worse, will not attend every meeting. So, they opt for middle of the day, but this time eliminates people who have jobs and cannot get away long enough for an effective planning meeting. Late afternoon, around 4 pm, works, especially if the district springs for a light supper. However, every community is different and finding a time to meet that encourages the best amount of participation is worth the forethought and effort.
School buildings are centers of community and need to be “owned” by the community. Getting the planning process right can mean the difference between getting your community on board with expanding or building a new school – or not. The stakes are high, but the results are so rewarding. I see the rewards every time I walk through a new addition or new building with the visioning committee and they see how they’re vision is coming to life.
Download the complete step-by-step guide to School Facility Planning and Community Engagement.