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schools are not an island

NSBA’s Tom Gentzel: K-12 schools are not an island

This column was originally published in the December 2017 edition of American School Board Journal. Read the original story here.

Tom Gentzel
Tom Gentzel

Public schools are where most children learn. They are major employers, they are reference points (“turn left at the middle school”), and they are gathering places. They are a community asset, whose continued success is entrusted to the citizens themselves and led by their representatives on school boards.

We value all this, yet we also can take it for granted. Of course, public schools exist everywhere. They educated generations of our families, and they will serve our grandchildren and their grandchildren. They are as firmly embedded in our society as any enterprise possibly could be. Yet, while a publicly funded and operated education is a right in this country, its future is not guaranteed without the active commitment and support of the people it serves.

When I drive past a public school, I often think about the decisions that put it in that spot and designed it to look that way. How many school board meetings were held to answer those questions, let alone to determine how to pay for the building, to staff it, and to ensure that it meets current and projected instructional needs? How was the public engaged in the process? And, how well did it meet expectations? What lessons were learned, and how are they being applied to future decisions about school facilities, programs, and related services?

Of course, schools don’t just show up overnight. They are the result of much planning and deliberation. They also are part of a larger landscape. Traffic patterns are affected by their presence; housing construction often follows (or precedes) the building of new schools. With that, other municipal services—police and fire protection, sewer and water lines, and trash collection, to cite just a few—all are directly impacted by decisions to build, renovate, or expand school buildings.

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So, a second set of questions becomes particularly important: How was the city or town leadership engaged in this process? Were they consulted early on or after some preliminary decisions already were made? Were their views solicited—including suggestions about how the new school facility could support the community beyond its educational mission?

In my experience, I have heard a wide range of answers to these questions. Some districts have excellent working relationships with their municipal partners; others, not so much. We can safely conclude that these connections are best made long before the school district needs cooperation to implement its plans. Requesting a zoning change, asking for new traffic signals, or seeking additional public services of any kind should not be presented as non-negotiable expectations for other units of government.

We should view cooperation with municipalities as a two-way street. Many school officials have, to their credit, entered into agreements with local governments to plow parking lots at the school buildings or other similar arrangements. This is good for the taxpayers, and it strengthens ties between separately governed jurisdictions. But, then, it is fair to ask: What has the district offered to the municipality? How can school facilities assist its work or benefit other local services?

Schools are the center of the community. More importantly, they are inextricably linked to all parts of it. They cannot thrive in isolation, nor should they.