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Best Practice Relating to Community Engagement

There are two primary reasons to create the need for a building referendum: the need for more classroom space and the lack of educational adequacy. Obviously, safety concerns should always receive high priority. A decision to inform the community of the facility needs and to actually organize a facility planning committee

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is a significant decision for a superintendent and school board. Several years of planning and networking are required prior to suggesting to a community that a facility study is needed. There should be a focus on accuracy, community involvement and responsibility. Because all stakeholders should have an opportunity to be involved and informed, community participation in the facility study is critical. There are multiple ways to engage the community, to gather data, and to facilitate the process. Transparency, thoughtful planning, and broad representation should result in giving the community what it wants for their children. Some of the Best Practices relating to community engagement are presented below in three "waves" or phases.

FIRST WAVE OF PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT

Once it is determined that a Facility Planning Committee is needed, a committee should be established 10-12 months prior to a referendum election date. As soon as the committee is organized (each board member nominates community residents for the 30-40 member committee), the community should be informed of the needs assessment study and a community engagement plan should be developed. The members on the Facility Planning Committee should be reminded that the board has the final authority.

Community meetings should be held to determine what the public wants the Facility Planning Committee to evaluate. An effort should also be made to meet with those in the community who might represent opposition to any proposed project to determine if they have any issues. This is done by having several focus groups. Lunches with community leaders should also be scheduled to explain the rationale for the study (and eventually to seek high profile endorsements). It would also be very beneficial to engage the services of a professional pollster. The information gathered from all the meetings and the surveys is fed back to the Facility Planning Committee as it continues its study (tours, receiving data, considering options, etc.).

SECOND WAVE OF PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT

The Facility Planning Committee evaluates the community input and all the data received from the architects, engineers, demographic experts, etc.The committee should identify all possible facility improvement options that would address the school corporation's needs, beginning with the highest priority needs. Using the small group discussion process, the top two or three facility improvement options would be identified.

The community engagement plan would guide the process of determining community consensus in support of the facility improvement options.

Community meetings should be scheduled and publicized in the media. One school corporation scheduled 32 meetings. All the meetings were held in the schools. While a consistent message was presented, more specific information was provided about the needs of the school where each meeting was being held. Using individual data-gathering devices (electronic keypads), an effort should be made to identify preferred facility improvement options from each community participant. Focus groups would also be held for anyone identified as possibly opposing the project. Several lunches should be held with community leaders and anyone who the members of the Facility Planning Committee (up to five per committee member) recommend be invited. The purpose would be to discuss the Facility Planning Committee's recommended options and to secure feedback. One superintendent provided meetings for the community every Thursday at 4:30 soon after the Facility Planning Committee began its study. Not many attended the meetings, but offering the additional opportunities for input was meaningful. While not scheduled, efforts should also be made on an on-going basis to meet with any individual who expresses concerns about the project.

After this process is complete, the Facility Planning Committee meets again to finalize its recommendation to the school board.

THIRD WAVE OF PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT

Referring to the community engagement plan that was developed, begin informing the community, using multiple strategies, of the school board's action relating to the Facility Planning Committee's recommendations. This would include large group meetings, lunches with community leaders, meetings with civic/community groups, newspaper articles, community newsletter, brochures describing the approved options and the tax impact, superintendent and principal meetings with the internal and external publics, and meeting with as many community groups as possible through forums, focus groups, etc.

It's critical that detailed information be on the school corporation's website relating to scope of the proposed project, costs of each option and tax impact. This factual information will be useful to the community and to the political action committee after the 1028 and preliminary determination hearing since the superintendent will no longer be able to promote the project. The information will also be useful if the opposition distorts the data.

Regarding polling, the professional pollster's information is very useful at the beginning of the community engagement phase (first wave) and just prior to the referendum campaign (once the project scope and cost are made public). These two times are most valuable, since the pollster is able to gauge public sentiment prior to the process, after the process, and just before the campaign. This allows the political action committee to know the issues in the community and to determine if the community engagement process influenced public opinion. If the polling can only be afforded once, then it should be the second of the two times, which is just prior to the campaign.

Community engagement is time consuming, but critical. It is the only way to nurture consensus and support from the community. Every meeting with individuals or with groups likely musters up more support (more YES votes) for the project. The winning strategies for a successful referendum include having a detailed written plan, broad-based participation, passionate leaders on the political action committee, common and compelling messages, all the staff on board, community relationships previously nurtured (support base), unanimous board support, on-going communications, strong leadership, and tireless efforts to engage the entire community.