Evaluating a school district's facilities planning process

Thorough and proper planning for school facilities is critical for the success of all school districts—no matter how large or small. It matters not whether major construction is in the works or if the district is managing enrollment declines. This is a process through which all districts must eventually go. When school districts properly plan for their facilities, they have schools that are better suited to serve the community. Additional public use is facilitated and the district creates a higher value for public spending–something that is currently needed across district and state borders.

How does one know how well a district is doing with the planning process? It is often difficult to see outside of one’s own “backyard,” let alone to know where in the country there are stellar examples.

The 21st Century School Fund (21CSF), a nonprofit founded on the premise that communities themselves are responsible for creating healthy, safe, and educationally appropriate learning environments, created an evaluation guide to the Master Facilities Planning Process. It underscores the importance of engaging the community in the process in order to create the highest value work that best serves the community. By comparing the provided checklist to local districts, one can gauge just how involved our communities are, and how well the local school district is performing.

The first step of the evaluation process is to determine whether or not the district properly engaged the public using inquiry-based planning. All the stakeholders are needed during this process, through which there should be “intense involvement of residents, experts, public and private interests and, most importantly, local school staff, teachers, parents and students,” according to 21CSF’s checklist.

Next, the vision laid out in the Master Facilities Plan (MFP) must be inspiring, not only to the writers of the plan, but to the entire community. It should also be broadly inclusive, and should build confidence in the district’s ability to completely overhaul the facilities. The plan should be a template for the next decade, a blueprint that should be updated every three years. Furthermore, the plan must direct attention to educational improvement of the school itself, not just the school buildings.

In order to succeed, the MFP should make “a major contribution to securing vibrant and safe neighborhoods.” It should be recognized that good community schools are part of what attracts families to an area, and that schools contribute to the quality of life of all residents, especially if community activities are planned for in the space. A strong school district is one that makes strong and lasting connections with its neighbors, and so public access should be increased.

The MFP should not be a stand-alone plan. There should be a complete and comprehensive plan for every one of the buildings within the district. The purpose of this is to explain what will happen, when it will happen, and at what cost. This gives the parents and staff of each school a cause with which they can evaluate their support and concerns. “Consideration of all relevant factors . . . must be demonstrated. The plan should reflect community demographic change, initiatives and programs underway that will affect population, housing, transportation, neighborhoods and communities,” states 21CSF’s standard.

The MFP should be coordinated with plans of other community agencies. This helps to reduce the repetitiveness of organizations trying to work separately on the same goals. It also ensures that the community will have a stake in the planning process, so initiatives such as increased tree cover, less impermeable surface, and LEED certifications should be included. The plan should make use of partnerships with “libraries, parks and recreation, public transportation, health services, housing, and public safety” to do this.

Educational attainment must be fair and equitable with both space and capital. This means that the schools and neighborhoods with the greatest need must be treated first. The priority of the projects should be determined by need, and be mindful of the importance of school investment in neighborhoods. The criteria for setting priorities, however, should be determined using public input.

This article is based on an evaluation checklist that 21CSF publishes, which can be found at www.21csf.org/csf-home/Documents/21CSFMFPEvaluationChecklistAugust2011.pdf.

Chris Hanson

Chris Hanson is a senior in the Urban Studies program at Cleveland State University, a consultant at The Urban Cash Cow, and an intern at FutureHeights.

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Volume 5, Issue 3, Posted 1:13 PM, 02.21.2012