With a 4-1 margin earlier this month, the Park City School Board decided to not bond or raise taxes for school expansion until at least 2018.
It was likely a smart move. A bond survey from a few months ago showed luke-warm support for a $70-$130 million dollar bond. The school board is now embarking on a process they call a “listening tour” to better understand how the community feels.
At the Park Rag, we feel it’s important for them to do more than that.
It’s true we can be skeptics. However, if the school district wins people like us over, they are bound to be much closer to passing a bond.
So, what will it take for the school board to win us over?
Before the 2015 bond, we sat in on many meetings of the district’s Master Planning Committee meeting. We went to public meetings where the stated objective was to get public input. We went to the school board vote, where the board decided to move forward with the bond. We talked to school board members. We talked to the bond opposition.
For the most recent bond-discussions we watched videos of meeting posted online. We went to a few public meetings. We spent more time talking to people behind the scenes. We visited with people on the committees. We visited with local government personnel. We tried to get opinions from other people who were there.
Our takeaway from following this process for 3 years is that almost everything about the school district’s bond process must change. It didn’t work in 2015. It didn’t work in 2017. What needs to be done for a successful bond in 2019?
1. It’s a matter of trust.
The funny thing about trust is that it generally can’t be manufactured. It must be organically earned. There are a lot of people out there who mistrust the school district. Some of that comes from the past bond efforts. Some of that comes from broken promises. Some of that comes from personal encounters people have had with the district. Some of that comes from employees of the district who tell their friends “how it really is.” We believe the district thought some of that trust would be earned through the increase in teacher salaries. We believe that falls under the “manufactured trust” line of reasoning. We’re sure teachers are happy to be getting an increase (who doesn’t like money).However, does that really increase trust with the district?
In reality, trust is earned and lost at every moment. Each time a teacher meets with an Administrator, trust is gained or lost. Each time a board member or Administrator is on the radio, trust is gained or lost. During every meeting with the public, trust is gained or lost.It really comes down to a culture of trust, which emanates from the School Board and from the Superintendent. Then trust flows down the chain. When we hear that the Park City School Board is “going on a listening tour” and intends to show the public that they are listening, we cringe a tiny bit. We would rather them say they are going on a listening tour and will be listening to the public. There’s a difference between really listening and trying to show someone you are listening (whether you are or aren’t). When we see people take time to come to the school board and provide public comment, and a school board member won’t even look at the person, it causes us to lose trust. We think the board is making strides but it’s a marathon of trust earned every day.
The Superintendent has a different set of issues. She is not only responsible for herself but for the culture of the entire organization. That culture needs to be one of trust. Trust between teachers and principals. Trust between the average employee working in the district and administration. Trust that decisions are made in good-faith and not because of grudges or personal whims. We aren’t naive enough to think that everyone is going to be happy in a school district, but we’d like to think that generally there can be a level of trust. That trust may or may not be there today (depends on who you ask), but it is important. Without a strong culture of trust on both the board and the administration, it becomes very easy to dismiss even the positive strides that the organization is making. From top to bottom, the interactions (AND NOT THE MESSAGE) has to be reality.We receive a number of calls from school district personnel who provide a less-than-rosey view of things. They question exactly what is going on. If we are talking trust, these are the people that the disitrict needs to win over on a day-by-day basis.
2. The public needs a full explanation of exactly why we are doing what we are doing with regard to school expansion.
In any school expansion or modification, a number of pieces are included. When the public questions why various items are included in a plan, we often hear that the “so-and-so committee” decided on this … or that there was a public meeting where there was support for an idea. Yet, there is rarely an explanation of why. If there is one, it is often superficial. For example, in some of the later design concepts for the redesigned high school there was a CTE/PC CAPS area. Why? Didn’t we just change the library to make it more PC CAPS friendly?We’re sure there was a good reason but it left some public feeling that the district was still trying to get their pet PC CAPS building that was denied years ago.If there was a document explaining why that PC CAPS area (and every other piece) is needed, then people can decide whether they are willing to fund it. Otherwise, many view it as just another pet project and it clouds their judgement of the whole concept.
We’re sure there are school district people reading this saying, “Gosh Darn you Park Rag (or likely worse) . We are educators and we know what the children need. ” In some ways, those people are right. However, often the trust isn’t there (see #1) to give our school administrators the benefit of the doubt. Thus, we are now in the Shark Tank phase of school funding. The School District needs investors to do what they want. They better have a good plan. If not, they won’t get the funding. We’d suggest they start with a pretty detailed business plan.
3. Committees and meetings need to be less controlled.
During the 2015 bond process, we were surprised by how controlled some of the public meetings were by school district officials. For instance there were three public meetings where citizens would work to decide how they thought the school district should redesign campuses and expand. However, such heavy constraints were placed upon the citizens that five of six groups (formed from the citizens during a meeting) came up with essentially the same idea of how to redesign the district. Likewise, members of the administration and school board were divided out into each group, which tended to push all the groups in the direction desired. During this year’s school planning discussions we heard from various people on the 5/6 school redesign committee that initial meetings were a little too “out of the box.” The district then assigned seats during the next meeting to “to spread out the trouble makers” according to our sources. We acknowledge that there is a fine line between letting a meeting get out of control and completely controlling that meeting. However, our fear is that our school district sometimes holds meetings with certain outcomes in mind. They then shape meetings to ensure they get those outcomes. Finally they say that a committee or the public made decisions, when it really doesn’t represent free thought. It’s not a new tactic and some would likely argue that it’s a traditional strategy. However, if that’s the case, they are only fooling themselves. The public isn’t going to buy it.
4. The public needs to know everything that was looked at and why certain ideas weren’t chosen. These decisions need to be well documented.
A common question asked about the 5/6 school is whether the school district looked at putting K-6 in every elementary school. The standard answer is that there isn’t room, so the elementary schools would need expansion. However, the typical outsider wants to know why that’s a big deal. Couldn’t the district spend $2 million per school and add a number classrooms to each school? Wouldn’t that be less money than a 5/6 school? Are there other benefits of a 5/6 school? The district may have valid reasons but unless they are expressed in an explanation of both why certain ideas were chosen and other ideas were declined, we don’t know why decisions were made. That leaves the public feeling like decisions were arbitrary. We would welcome a discussion on whether a 5/6 school or expanding elementary schools were the proper course of action… but if the school district doesn’t explain their rationale for a new 5/6 it all seems arbitrary. It comes back to trust. Without it, we need to know why.
5. The architecture firm VCBO needs to shelved for the next round of discussions.
In almost every stage of Park City’s school expansion talks over the past few years, the architecture firm VCBO has been there. They were in many master planning meetings. They hosted public workshops. In many ways they are the face of Park City school expansion. They are constantly present. The upside of this is that they are familiar with Park City. The downside is that the 2017 plan looked remarkably similar to the 2015 plan. There was little out of the box thinking. We believe we need an architect who will achieve a good value through balancing wants versus cost. We need someone who is strong and will ensure plans balance both student and teacher needs, and not make our schools into a University campus where teachers have no primary room to conduct classes from.
6. The community does generally understand. They just understand differently.
We’re really tired of hearing that the community “just doesn’t understand.” After the 2015 bond failure, much of the talk was that those opposed to the bond didn’t understand it. During the most recent bond discussion a board member inferred we couldn’t trust a survey on a potential bond because some comments talked about a field house and there was no field house proposed in this bond. The truth is that few people understand the details on something as complicated as the bond. That includes board members, school administration, or the voters.As an example, we would point out the traffic impacts of adding a 5/6 school at Ecker Hill. In 2015, a question was asked about how traffic would be handled if a 5/6 was placed at Ecker and the answer was, “it’s Summit County’s issue to figure out.” That board (it had some different members) either didn’t understand the issue or were trying to push impacts on someone else to solve the problem. If we revisit that same question, we would love anyone from the school district to tell us the specific traffic impact to Ecker at peak times, along Kilby Rd, given the new Whole Foods, UDOT’s coming roundabouts at I-80, the coming Park and Ride at the rest stop, and the new 100 units going up by Quarry Village. Specifically, what will the maximum wait times be, how far will traffic back up, and what will the impact be to buses. Having no answer is OK but that leaves you going with your logic and your gut feel. That’s what many of us in the community are forced to do. We think that’s what most people do, including the school board.
As for chastising bond survey takers for providing comments that contained inaccuracies about things that weren’t even being proposed this time around (like a field house), we get where the board member is coming from. However, we also shouldn’t forget that with the 2015 Bond, the School Board was presented with recommendations from Dr. Conley and the Master Planning Committee. The school board chose to go with their proposal and not the Superintendent’s or the committee who had been meeting for months. So, the board may have to forgive the public for telling them everything they don’t want in a bond, just in case the school board got a wild hair and said, “let’s go for the $130 million dollar bond and why don’t we include a field house in there,” even though that hadn’t been publicly discussed.
So, where does that leave us?
Given the district’s past track record, we’d assume they are focusing their efforts (behind the scenes) on planning for a school bond as soon as they can.
If they asked our advice, we’d say stop. Don’t think about the next bond. We believe the district needs to start over on their assessment of needs — from scratch.
Given where we are, they need to build a case based on logic that is documented. If our schools are overcrowded, then close them. Don’t allow additional outside of district students in (Jeremy Ranch is currently the only school closed… as far as we know). Don’t tell us we need trailers at Trailside and Parley’s but then have them as “Open Schools.” There is likely a reason but it doesn’t make sense to the public.
Don’t tell us that Treasure Mountain is dangerous (from lead or earthquakes or the water fountains or crowded hallways) and then keep it operating. If it’s dangerous, shut it down. If it’s not, then don’t talk about it. If there are other reasons for shutting it down, like it costs $2 million a year to heat, or we need a $25 million boiler, or students are not getting a good education because the building is crappy then make that case… but don’t use fear to try and persuade the public.
Build the most logical case ever, without spinning. Build the most logical case ever, based on what people KNOW. Build the most logical case ever, without manipulating.
Make the case so compelling that few (if any) question it. Do that and the public will gladly hand over their money. If that can’t be done then, at this point, the school district probably shouldn’t get the money.
If they can do that, and continue building trust, they’ll have our full support — and likely many others’ support too.