The plaques proclaiming him outstanding school administrator, top teacher and excellent PTA administrator don't mean anything when it comes to saving Paul Shepherd's good name these days. As director of planning and boundaries for Granite School District in Salt Lake City, Utah, he's in the hot seat to redraw the schools' boundaries to accommodate both declining growth and pockets of enrollment increases.
"I've set myself up to be the biggest jerk in the district, so I feel I've put my professional reputation in jeopardy because of the human tendency to kill the messenger who bears bad news. I've even toyed with setting up an Internet store where I sell voodoo dolls and effigies of me to burn," he jokes.
Four years ago, Pam Robinson might have been a customer of that sort of store. She and her husband had declined several career advancements to see that their son was educated in the Basic School framework adopted by three buildings in Blue Valley Unified School District #229, located in a Kansas City, Kan., suburb. When her son was in upper elementary school, a boundary change proposal threatened that status quo.
As president of the Prairie Star Elementary PTO, Robinson rounded up parents for a fight. She conducted her own research on projected enrollment numbers, formed parent committees to develop their own proposals, and gathered petition signatures. Her posse won a reprieve--the school board decided to wait for the impact of private schools and new subdivisions rather than follow through on proactive change. By the time the issue rolled around again, Robinson was herself a school board member--with a completely different attitude about boundary changes.
Welcome to the most explosive process a school district can undertake. Just ask Dave Hill, executive director of facilities and operations for Blue Valley. During Robinson's crusade, the district also faced a state budget cut that erased $5 million from its coffers, so officials designed one of the public forums on the matter to address both issues. Approximately 300 folks filled the auditorium, and of the 32 people signed up to speak, 30 chose to address the board about boundaries. "Even in the midst of serious, serious budget cuts, this was more important to them," Hill notes.
From Swingset Counts To Smart Maps
Thanks to Geographic Information Systems, the legwork these days is a snap. In the old days-before 1990 for a majority of school districts--administrators poured over street maps, matching them to enrollment data and drawing in potential boundaries with colored markers. If a district strove for, say, ethnic diversity, planners sketched a gross blueprint based on local knowledge of where the kids lived, and fine-tuned it by driving around neighborhoods counting swing sets. Occasionally someone would follow school buses and count the children as they exited to their houses, says Matt Cropper, GIS manager for DeJONG, Inc. in Dublin, Ohio.
GIS, essentially, offers a smart map relying on a number of databases. Users literally can draw a box around any streets and immediately note how many children are in that area, with reports on grade-level breakdowns, ethnic make-up, special education students, free and reduced lunch candidates generated within five minutes versus two weeks.
Blue Valley was the country's educational pioneer for GIS technology, and Hill declares the data that the tool brings to bear on a discussion invaluable. "That can't be a bone of contention. You'll have your hands full with the plans' emotional issues so the projection's accuracy and integrity can't be a factor.
"It would be easy to let the whiz-bang bells and whistles overtake your boundary process," he adds. "But at the end of the day, it's really about working with parents and the community to make them understand why your decisions are in the best interest of the district."
In other words, GIS's $30,000 or so start-up price tag won't buy you a politician.
First Things First
Human beings divide into "us and them" over the most minute details. Race, sports leagues, religious affiliation--nothing is sacred. "Some parents very frankly will say all the poor and minority children can go to that other high school," admits James A. Fleming, superintendent of the Capistrano Unified School District in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.
Hill recommends colleagues poll parents on their boundary priorities and criteria before starting a public dialogue on specific plans. "If you do it after, people manipulate their feedback to arrive at the plan they've already picked," he explains.
In Blue Valley's latest round, they split 200 interested parents into groups of 20 to determine whether they, for instance, value keeping a feeder pattern pure more than student enrollment balance. The answers became the boundary planning committee's marching orders with which to brainstorm specifics.
Salt Lake City administrators take a different tact. The district dictates the priorities, starting with the students' welfare. For instance, Shepherd says, they want enrollments to remain large enough in any middle or high school to maintain the staffing for a full slate of electives and an honors track. Utah's open enrollment status is a factor in decision-making. Tinker around and move kids from a 4A or 5A classed athletic department to a school competing at the 3A level, and students immediately request those transfers. All of this, of course, wrecks havoc on the balance administrators have worked so hard to create.
Capistrano Unified's board policy requests that boundary changes embrace several criteria to the extent possible and feasible: Have even enrollments; ensure students attend the school closest to their home; maintain a pure feeder system; balance ethnicities so that no school is racially identifiable; and keep players in local sports leagues together.
Compromise is the name of the game: Currently Fleming has one high school with 2,900 students, another with 2,200. He could have achieved 2,500 in each, but that decision meant siphoning 10 percent of one middle school's population from their peers.
"I know from personal experience that as long as the entire subdivision moved, my children were fine," says Sherry Obringer, a former board member at Blue Valley. She, too, was once one of the protesting parents, pleading with the district not to move her three children. "The big cry for years--and I'm sure somebody tries it now but it's disregarded quickly--is that you'll psychologically damage my child for life by changing his elementary school every two years. It doesn't happen. In K-5, who they play with in the neighborhood is who they call a friend."
Riding Out the Storm
Robinson calmed down after she developed relationships within the entire Blue Valley district and realized that even schools without the formal "Basic School" label still practiced its philosophies. "I now know the administrators' hearts and souls," she says. "They're in this for the children and won't do something that's detrimental. But as a parent who doesn't know these people sitting up there on the platform, you feel it's a very heartless business decision."
Armed with such testimonials, administrators like Candace Milhorn-Baer, superintendent of Center Grove Community School Corporation in Greenwood, Ind., realize communication is a vital ingredient. But she admits they goofed a few years ago when opening a new middle school and an elementary school. They relied almost totally on the media as the messenger, with unforeseen consequences. "We had a bit of a challenge in making parents believe our minds weren't made up on the plan, that it was open to discussion," she recalls.
Next time around, she's determined to take a page out of Shepherd's book. He relies on e-mail, newsletters, direct mailings, voice-mail broadcasts, Web sites and media announcements to spread the word, "and I'm still dealing with e-mails and phone calls about 'Why was I never notified about this meeting?' and 'We think you're trying to hide it.' So you can't do enough communicating," he notes.
In the case of declining enrollments, he likes surveys--a form that spells out each option and its consequences--as a way to jumpstart public involvement. By collecting parents' preferences between closing schools or maintaining half-full facilities at the expense of educational programs, Granite can gauge which way the wind is blowing.
One caution, however: the highly motivated send back the forms, and in Shepherd's situation, that translates to those who fear their school might be up for closure. "You tend to get a lopsided response when in fact the decision affects the whole system," he says. So he hires a polling firm to conduct scientific questioning results for a complete picture.
And how you structure the public's opportunities for comment on the boundary process spells the difference between success and stress, say veterans. Fleming, for instance, has it down to a science after opening 30 schools in 15 years (for both Capistrano and Miami-Dade County Public Schools):
Start three years out--year one to lay the groundwork, year two to conduct the discussions and year three to implement the decision. In the first phase, each region forms its own boundary committee made up of anyone who wants to volunteer for the stint--no limitation on the number of seats at the table. "If someone wants to be involved, better they be sitting at the table inside the room than outside making noise," Fleming says. Committee members attend workshops where the superintendent provides projected student numbers, priorities, residential development plans and other demographic data. They then take a few months to suggest a plan.
Form a district-wide attendance boundary committee, or an ABC, as Fleming dubs it. He appoints 20 or so individuals from diverse corners of the community and has invited a child psychologist, a former president of the PTA, a chamber of commerce executive and athletic booster dads--folks who he thinks would consider the district's needs as a whole. The committee, too, holds public hearings to dig into the issues first hand.
By mid-December, the regional committees submit their blueprints to the ABC, which reviews, weighs, pokes and prods every line to boil it down to a single recommendation to the superintendent. A majority of the time, Fleming submits the ABC's choice with his stamp of approval to the school board. The school board receives all plans, however, and holds its own hearings before voting in the spring.
Blue Valley's structure today is a national model for boundary planning, but not without a few scrapes along the way. Nearly two decades ago, the board stood up its first advisory committee, a group of citizen volunteers known as the Facility Planning Committee. At least two board members belong as well, so the group is well steeped in the grassroots issues. All of their boundary-planning meetings are open to the public for a total transparency into the problem.
The committee didn't, however, allow the public to speak during these gatherings until the early 1990s, when they plugged in an open microphone to get feedback. "Picture a group of 18 parents, laypeople who already find this emotionally and physically challenging to hold these late-night meetings every week--and then they have 100 [other] screaming parents trying to convince them that if they don't choose Plan B it will do irreparable harm to their child," Hill describes. "Our demographics are highly educated professionals on the whole--CEOs, attorneys, doctors who are very well spoken and persuasive. So the committee was getting intimidated."
Not to mention the atmosphere encouraged some speakers to grandstand, whipping the audience into a sign-carrying, chanting frenzy. "It was out of control," he sums.
Indeed, Robinson confesses the open mike set-up struck her as impersonal. "You felt the committee was just going through the motions," she says. Now the district hosts mini open houses where the public may wander in, walk through the different stations detailing plans and discuss concerns with the staff or a committee member one-on-one. Workers carefully capture each comment to report the planning committee as a whole. "People felt they had an ear and weren't in this by themselves," Robinson says.
Finally, Fleming instituted two pacifying policies in Capistrano:
A grandfather clause says the district won't force any child at any level to change schools for any reason. New students may have to go to the new middle school, but as long as the family shoulders the transportation, existing students may choose their current building.
Siblings may stay together. So if an elementary child wants to attend the same middle school with his older sister, that's allowable.
Of course, these exceptions wreck havoc with those carefully culled GIS numbers, and threaten to undermine the whole purpose of redistricting. Fleming simply grins. "It's a benefit we provide that, at the end of the day, really doesn't mean anything," he shares. "The power of the neighborhood is so strong, very few kids take it. But it provides a level of comfort."
And beleaguered administrators can expect the uproar to die quickly after the board announces its decision and moves on--typically after the first year when students, parents and teachers bond. Oh, Shepherd still hears muttering against the previous gentleman who occupied his position, but the venom is gone.
"It's one of the toughest parts of my job," Hill says of the whole process. "And yet the challenge of it all keeps the job interesting."
Julie Sturgeon is a contributing editor.