Photo Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
*This article is part of a 2-post series addressing the complexities and challenges of the recent decision of the DeKalb County School District to purchase the Shallowford Gardens apartment complex in order to relieve overcrowding in the Cross Keys cluster.
The first post covers the selection process for the new Cross Keys North Elementary School. This second post covers how DeKalb County School’s choice affects the community and their relationship with it. This second post also includes some ideas for moving forward and doing better next time.
School site selection isn’t just difficult in DeKalb — it’s a complicated process wherever you go. School planners have to balance oftentimes conflicting things from environmental to traffic to community concerns. The task is not easy.
The past few blog posts haven’t been written in order to look backward and try to protest the latest sale of the Shallowford Gardens apartment complex. That decision has already been made as of Wednesday, June 14, 2017.
However, this is not the last time that our school district will need to make decisions as it pertains to land acquisitions and school site selection.
My main point in this article will be how to conduct a robust community engagement and reporting process when dealing with site selection for local schools. This is about professionalism; it’s about the relationship of the school district to the community; and it’s about building trust and improving transparency.
Site Selection Affects All of Us
The Doraville community, particularly the residents of Shallowford Gardens, are not the only ones who have recently been taken by surprise by the site selection process.
Last year, residents of Brookhaven had a similar experience when the district announced its intent to purchase the Skyland property to construct the new John Lewis Elementary School. While the details of this situation are much different, it still underscores the importance of the community input process.
Site selection of a school deserves community input, especially since schools remain in a community for decades. When the decision is made by district officials, without giving the community the opportunity to actively participate in the process, they lose valuable insight and open themselves up to increased criticism.
To that point, after spending the last few days discussing the matter with city planners, regional planners, council members, community members, and district officials, I have put together a few recommendations that, I believe, should be adopted by the DeKalb Board of Education, in order to improve the site selection process.
School Site Selection Committees and Community Impact
The School Site Selection Committee, similar to the already-established Construction Advisory Committees (CACs), should be a part of 1) setting the criteria related to Community Impacts for Site Selection, and 2) should provide input during the site selection process.
Here is an example of the Albuquerque Public Schools site selection and committee criteria.
Obviously we could adapt ours to meet our district’s unique needs. A few suggested components for our own Community Impacts could include the following (in addition to the existing criteria used by the school district):
- Consistency with community’s comprehensive plans and character area studies (i.e. LCI plans, Comprehensive Plans)
- Displacement of students and their families
- Effects of traffic and parking
- Effects on walkability and transit options
- Environmental concerns
- Effects on local businesses
- Effects on local parks and recreational facilities
The state of Oregon provides a “School Siting Handbook” in order to develop “livable communities.” In it, it states:
“School districts should include the community in school siting decisions. Good community involvement will initiate a sustained, informed dialogue about issues. Moreover, it provides districts a way to communicate to residents and voters that school siting is a necessary element of a good educational program.”
The School Site Selection Committee (or whatever our district would want to call it) would be able to offer valuable insights to the chief engineers and planners. Omitting this step makes the community feel as if their input doesn’t matter; but more importantly, the school district misses out on this additional, significant perspective.
Increase Transparency, Build Trust
In the future, I would ask that the school districts (including DeKalb County Schools) please commit to the following actions (in addition to the current process that guides the site selection process — which I could not locate easily):
- Creation of a School Committee, comprising members of the local community including, but not limited to, members from the surrounding area school councils, faculty and staff, PTAs, business owners, and elected officials.
- Regular updates from the school district’s Planning Department regarding the site selection process.
- A Site Selection Study Report delivered on the day of the official site selection, including but not limited to, information related to traffic, engineering, environment, city/regional planning, parks and recreation, parking, public involvement, and fire/safety.
- Consideration of the community impact and effects of Site Selection on the displacement of local residents (particularly students).
This request is not without precedent. Other school districts commit to this type of community input process, including the following districts and states:
- Albuquerque Public Schools http://www.aps.edu/about-us/policies-and-procedural-directives/procedural-directives/f.-facilities-development/new-school-site-selection-process-and-criteria
- State of Oregon https://www.oregon.gov/LCD/TGM/docs/schoolsitinghandbook.pdf
- Brookline Public Schools (Massachusetts) https://www.brookline.k12.ma.us/cms/lib/MA01907509/Centricity/Domain/722/9th_School_Site%20Selection%20Study%20Report.pdf
Brookline Public Schools: A Prototype for Community Involvement and Transparency
Brookline Public Schools, located in Massachusetts, has a documented public input process that goes beyond simply saying, “Yes, we need a new school in this area.” Below is a sample of the community input regarding one of the potential sites. (You can see a full slideshow presentation of the entire public input process by clicking here).
This type of information was gleaned from over a dozen public meetings, as you can see below. (By the way, I’m not saying we should necessarily have dozens of meetings, but we need more than just the meeting announcing the site location.)
Additionally, as Brookline school district engaged in the site selection process, it took great pains to include the public. Below is an excerpt from a memo explaining why certain sites were being removed from consideration:
Again, I am not an engineer, nor a city planner, nor a school site selection expert. However, I am someone who values community input, competence, transparency, trust, and careful thought. The current site selection process could be greatly improved – both here in DeKalb County School District and in the state of Georgia.
Immigrant communities, working class communities, and minority communities often feel as if their input is not valued. The decision to demolish the Shallowford Gardens Apartment complex does nothing to reverse that feeling; in fact, it reinforces it and creates an ever-widening rift.
On the other hand — but similarly related — not involving other communities (like the Brookhaven community with the Skyland Park and John Lewis Elementary School deal) in the decision-making process breeds more distrust and dissatisfaction with a school district that is still struggling to overcome its negative reputation.
The Shallowford Gardens property looks like it’s going to become an elementary school. There isn’t much that we can do about that at this point. In the future, however, I would love to see a revised site selection process that includes community input and a thorough site analysis and final report. This would go a long way toward improving and sustaining a healthy relationship between the school district and its families, something our students and our communities desperately need.