Planning Without Anxiety

It can make your eyes wide with anticipation, and your stomach churn at the same time. The idea of renovating or building a new school in your district can bring mixed feelings of excitement and panic. That decision can make the project seem overwhelming. Yet by including the community in the planning process, the project can accommodate the needs of both the community and the school.

When a community is informed and involved in the decision making process, they will join the school district in implementing the choices that have been made. Gathering research, conducting meetings, and implementing the community-based plan unites the entire community. In a survey of participants from Warren Local Schools in Vincent, Ohio, 93 percent said the process united the community.

Before involving the community, it is important that you do your research. You must be able to give the community accurate statistics such as population projections, the condition of the buildings and the costs associated with new construction and renovation, in order for them to feel that they are making educated decisions about the facilities. The second step is involving the community through a community roundtable discussion. The final step is deciding which plan is best.

Population Projections

It is reasonable and affordable to use a 10-year population projection to show how growth will affect the area. These projections can be provided by a number of firms at a relatively low cost. For instance, Futura Research provides a range of probable growth scenarios for approximately $1,000.

Building Evaluations

The evaluation of existing buildings should be performed by an architecture firm that has been trained in SCOPE (School Construction Operation and Program Evaluation) or a system that is equivalent. Evaluations should include a rating system for three main categories: the site, the physical condition of the building and the suitability of the building for its current use. Within those categories, at least 100-150 factors should be assessed, such as vehicular and pedestrian traffic conditions, technology and operational conditions. The evaluation must compare all schools with the same criteria and should be easy to read.

Cost Analysis

Cost will be a major concern. The architecture firm should prepare an estimated cost to renovate each building, and an estimated cost to replace each building with new construction. By evaluating these costs, the district can weigh the merits of incorporating current structures into future plans for the district.

After gathering the research, create three to five district-wide, integrated plans that address the needs of the school district. For instance, one option can involve renovating and adding to all existing buildings. Another option is to build a new high school, turn the existing high school into a middle school and renovate the remaining buildings.

Each district plan should be based on the research and should accommodate the population projections. Each option must be assigned a total cost, with a breakdown of the costs per building. This should include an additional cost factor to cover soft costs and furnishings to each option.

Architects should not be tempted to raise or lower costs of options in order to make one look better than the others. Members of the community who have backgrounds in construction or design should be involved in the community meetings and closely monitor the data. If the information is presented as objective, then it must be objective.

Discuss Information and Options

Districts can include thousands of people. An effective way to reach a broad cross-section of the community is through a Host Committee. The Host Committee’s sole responsibility is to produce the highest attendance possible at the meeting. The committee should consist of 30-40 members from all walks of life. They should brainstorm how to reach different groups in the community and how to attain a goal of 300-400 participants.

Plan two community meetings to discuss the data. Each meeting should be identical and on different days so that community members can attend the one that is most convenient to their schedule.

The community brings factors to the decision-making process that are not available to an outside consultant. Factors such as the historical significance of existing buildings, neighborhood traditions, travel distances, athletic traditions and community use can have a strong influence on the decision-making process. The meeting should encourage discussion and evaluation of these factors.

The meeting should last two to three hours. Present the research information in the first 45 minutes. All participants should be given a written summary of the research, the cost and the options. Provide a wide variety of options, including controversial ones. The community will appreciate the opportunity to view and accept or reject possible options. The options must be varied and present a full spectrum of options for consideration.

Make sure the participants understand how the information was collected, what it means to the community and what factors were considered in development of the options. To assure the participants understand the information, allow time for questions, but don’t permit speeches.

Next, divide the participants into small focus groups to discuss the options. Groups should consist of five to 10 people, and last approximately 45 minutes. Once the groups have chosen a spokesperson, each person should have an opportunity to share his or her views. Once they agree upon an option that best suits the community, they will return to the general session.

During the general session, the spokesperson shares the conclusions from his or her group. Often groups are surprised to discover that their discussion was similar to the other groups and a clear consensus begins to emerge. The facilitator should end the meeting with a summary of the discussion and the consensus from the meeting.

This meeting is an excellent opportunity for participants to contribute to the decisions while learning of the concerns of others. Community members often discover the common ground they share, which builds support for funding measures. “I am amazed at the overall grouping and coming to consensus,” one participant commented after an Ashland (OH) School District community meeting.

Is It Worth Involving the Community?

The entire community-based planning program, including research, materials and facilitation can cost $12,000 to $16,000, but it is worth it in the dividends it pays. Community planning creates positive feelings toward a bond issue. Because the community is involved in the planning, they are aware of the district needs and will support the levy.

The steps of gathering data, involving the community and reaching a community-based decision eliminate the anxiety of the planning process. The community will be proud of the decision and enjoy the newly planned facilities.

Clyde Henry, AIA, is a partner with Triad Architects, Inc., in Columbus, Ohio. Triad has been a pioneer in community-based planning and design. Having used the procedure in 21 school districts, Henry has been a featured speaker at leading educational conferences, workshops and seminars. He has consulted on international educational design issues and served on numerous governmental and legislative advisory board.