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School district K-12 enrollment: ~11,000 (now over 60,000)
Setting: Large metro area suburb with rapid (10%-17%) growth annually
Characteristics: Rapid growth rate; tax base was grossly inadequate and lagging (two years to get new properties fully on the tax rolls); relatively small existing housing base with large build out potential resulting in the need for many more schools.
Two examples are provided to demonstrate the value of building solid working relationships with other entities.
First, when I started working for a school district I recognized that we had a difficult time working with the county,
primarily the county engineering office. In fact, the County engineer was so upset about something that he would not return a call from anyone at the school district. It took a considerable amount of time working with the engineering and planning staff, gaining their confidence and trust with a host of issues that were of common concern. One of the confidence building methods applied was simply using common sense to seek out the staff person in charge of street signage. Working hand-in-hand with him and exploiting his expertise, we developed safe walking routes to schools and reaped the advantage of minimizing street crossings among other things, therefore increasing safety for students. Additionally, I had the opportunity to support a few policy changes proposed by that department in public hearings, citing the advantages to the school district’s busing and student safety as well. A few things about the way the district operated, including involving the engineering
staff as advisors in school site and construction decisions, also made a tremendous difference. Finally, the County engineer understood that the game had changed and the new “player” could be relied upon to work objectively on school site issues about which they were concerned. As a result of this objective, commonsense effort the school district was able to gain the support of the county engineering staff when pressing for safer and better (read: less expensive to develop) school sites.
In the second case, I was working as a consultant to a smaller school district that was experiencing relatively rapid housing growth. As to be expected, the district had great concerns about how to accommodate the subsequent students that would follow. A developer active in the area, which had been quite cooperative in the past, had a change in leadership and the communication diminished and was less positive. Several months later when the development company submitted another land use application the usual land dedication and other common mitigation were excluded. The district’s superintendent, attorney and I protested the lack of mitigation during planning commission and county commissioner hearings. Although the case presented was very strong, the political reality was that the school district had become the bad guy and that the developer “in the white hat” would not have to submit to any mitigation as had been the norm. In fact, during one of the hearings a planning commissioner accused the school district of essentially not working in good faith, the specifics of which were in error and known by only a couple of people. The superintendent, attorney and I were discussing the proceedings following the final hearing when I asked the rhetorical question: “How did the planning commissioner hear about this?” I stated that the only way she could have known about that situation was from the developer. Based upon the two “deer in headlights looks” it became obvious that the developer had done his homework well. In contrast, it was apparent that neither the superintendent nor any other staff at the district had spent enough time building relationships with staff or elected and appointed officials at the county. And don’t get me wrong; the fact that the developer had spent a great deal of time “greasing the skids” for his development, is exactly what he should have done; it’s good business. That’s another reason why it is so important to maintain communication and build good relationships so you don’t get blindsided.
Bottom line: Building good working relationships with other local entities is important for at least two reasons,
particularly with those which have land use authority. First, positive relationships make it much easier to accomplish good school planning, resulting in improved safety and reducing costs when siting and building schools. Secondly, developing good political relationships will help avoid adversarial relationships. In fact, both entities should be working together toward the common good of your mutual constituents. If staff and officials at these entities do not understand the implications of their decisions on the school district and your mutual constituents then it is only because you do not have their trust and they have not had the advantage of your trusted communication and insights.