I’ve been writing about the tension between administrative control and elected board control of school decisions. Another example involves the schematic design plan for the renovation of Horace Mann Elementary.
The Mann renovation is part of the district’s facilities master plan. At several meetings earlier this year, the board discussed the development of a design for the plan. Mann is on a very small site adjoining a public park in the middle of a residential neighborhood; there was a lot of community interest in just how we would go about putting a very large addition onto the building.
The board decided to hold a community meeting at Mann to get community input. Between eighty and a hundred people showed up. The district brought some initial design scenarios. Now, I understand that it’s sometimes hard to know how to gauge “community sentiment” from attending a listening post: the room is never of one monolithic viewpoint. But I think it’s fair to say that there was significant sentiment at the listening post for a different balance between outdoor play space, on-site parking, and building placement than that of the district’s own scenarios, or at least for some creative thinking in that direction. I don’t recall anyone suggesting that the addition to the building be made larger; if anything, people wondered if we could create more outdoor play space if the addition were a little smaller.
That was in May. Then, at our meeting last week, the administration presented a schematic design proposal for Mann. What did it look like? Pretty much just like the one the district brought to the community meeting, except with a larger addition. The only apparent effect of the community meeting was to spur the administration to rehearse more extended arguments in favor of its own preferred idea.
Few people were aware that the item was on the agenda. The one community commenter on the issue complained that the district had not followed through on its promises to meet with him and to update him on the progress of the design and had ignored the community input it sought. (Watch his comment here.)
Given the circumstances, three board members (including me) were unwilling to approve the schematic design unless there was additional time for community members to chime in. The board chair immediately raised the prospect that any delay could delay the project. (Yet at the previous meeting, we were at the same step on the Lincoln project, which has the same completion date, and we were told that we could always change the design later.) Ultimately the board put the item on our next meeting agenda. Our administrators all but explicitly said that they’d make sure we received community feedback favoring the proposal in the meantime.
In sum: After we sought community feedback, the administration presented us with a proposal that did not reflect that feedback, and then explained that if the board didn’t approve it, the project could be delayed. Assuming the board approves it under those circumstances, who really decided the issue?