Reaching Consensus

Facing increasingly low enrollment, coupled with both overcrowded and under-utilized schools due to shifting residential populations, Cedar Rapids Community School District leaders knew they needed to make some difficult decisions.

Superintendent Dr. Dave Benson, his leadership team and the school board also knew those decisions required reaching out to the community in order to build support and consensus. Only by hearing directly from those most impacted — parents, students, district staff and community members — would they be equipped to tackle boundary and school closure recommendations. Thus began a nearly two-year-long collaborative process of gathering information, analyzing data, and speaking openly with all concerned stakeholders.

Studying the situation

The district first conducted Enrollment and Facilities Studies, to determine whether or not the 33 existing school buildings were meeting enrollment needs, in light of families moving out of the city center — and out of those older school buildings — and into surrounding areas, causing overcrowding at some of those schools. With total district enrollment just under 16,000 students, 24 elementary schools with capacity for 11,000 students were operating with just 7,427 students, thereby costing the district extra money.

In August 2011, an Enrollment Study Stakeholder Committee was formed, comprised of 23 parents, teachers, school administrators, community members and outside consultants. Meeting every two weeks, the committee studied enrollment data, discussed results of the Enrollment and Facilities Studies and agreed on recommendations to present to Dr. Benson. Throughout every step of the process, in the spirit of transparency, the district posted meeting notes and presentations on the district website.

While the team now had enough data to make sound decisions, they recognized that, without community buy-in, those decisions would likely be challenged. To ensure full stakeholder support, the team now needed to build consensus by inviting the larger community into the conversation.

Seeking community input

In November 2011, the district partnered with K12 Insight to develop and launch a Community Input Survey, measuring public awareness of facility overhead costs and the relationship between funding and enrollment. The district also wanted to gauge support for possible strategies, such as closing aging or under-enrolled schools.

Designed to seek informed input, the survey did more than just ask questions — it clearly explained the situation in order to educate each participant about several key facts. To publicize the survey, the district posted a letter on its website and sent an email to all parents whose information was on file. Along with explaining why they were conducting the survey, the letter also emphasized that no decisions would be made until the community had an opportunity to weigh in.

“School closures are never easy,” said Dr. Benson, who joined the district in July 2009 following superintendent stints in Missouri, Kansas and Iowa. “But working with K12 Insight provided an opportunity to educate the community and seek feedback all at the same time. There’s something called ‘informed opinion.’ If you inform the community of issues, they will empathize with the situation and stand behind you to support the decisions that are imminently upon you. We were able to establish that base of knowledge that will allow the community to ultimately come to grips with and be supportive of the board decisions.”

Nearly 4,400 people responded to the survey, representing a cross-section of parents, district staff and community members. Results showed that most respondents were more familiar with the relationship between funding and enrollment, while less familiar with annual overhead costs and the under-utilization of some school buildings. Most encouragingly, respondents were open to adjusting school boundaries and closing schools, as long as they were given strong justification for those actions.

Would you support a strategy that includes closing specific schools, likely those in need of major renovation?

Engaging with all stakeholders

Throughout the process, local press coverage — including articles about the Stakeholder Committee, the survey and its results, Dr. Benson’s recommendations and widespread community response — ensured all critical issues were kept in front of the community

“This was a well thought-out and thoughtful process, involving our entire district community, a focus on transparency and multiple opportunities for input,” said Marcia Hughes, Community Relations Supervisor.

Along with feedback from the Stakeholder Committee, Dr. Benson considered recommendations from a group of nine external advisors, community leaders who examined the situation from a politically feasible point of view. “I looked at the study data, at the K12 Insight analysis, at the social and political consequences,” said Benson, “and then I made my recommendations.”

In January 2012, Dr. Benson presented those preliminary recommendations to the school board, with the public invited to weigh in at two subsequent public input forums. One modification that emerged was to leave elementary schools open in areas hardest-hit by floods that had devastated the area in June 2008.

“While the numbers didn’t support keeping all of those schools open,” said Dr. Benson, “school management is about more than just numbers. It’s about dealing with the human dynamic of any school district in any situation. So we’ve decided to give them more time for flood recovery in an effort to bring those neighborhoods back.”

Making difficult decisions easier through transparent communication

On March 12, 2012, the Board of Education voted to approve all seven of Dr. Benson’s boundary adjustment recommendations and school closures, saving the district more than $1.16 million. Beginning in the 2012-13 school year, one elementary school and one early childhood center will close, with another early childhood center becoming a K-5 elementary center.

By committing to a candid two-way dialogue with the entire community, inviting every voice to be heard, Cedar Rapids ensured that everyone was part of the process from beginning to end.

“There is a great deal of pressure on superintendents to maintain the status quo and pass on difficult decisions,” said Dr. Benson. “But in an era of shrinking resources, in school districts that are urban and experiencing declining enrollment, it’s a pay me now or pay me later situation. Either we take control of the dynamics that drive the school district, or those dynamics will cost us more in the long-run. We’re doing this proactively to maintain our status as a lighthouse educational institution in the Midwest.”