Saturday, January 19, 2013

Spring Lake Schools "Re-imagining" Needs Better Process

I may or may not eventually be in favor of what a special committee "re-imagining" Spring Lake Schools proposes. But for now all I know is that I was shocked to read a headline in the Grand Haven Tribune top of page one a few days ago saying that "Spring Lake Could Close School."

The key word was "could." But it was not a sensational headline: a committee really is considering closing one of the elementary schools.

I was a little shocked that this is the first I heard of the committee considering this. Apparently, a newsletter went to parents, and some parents are on the committee. But the community at large found out about this in a front-page newspaper article.

Superintendent Dennis Furton did not want the newspaper to cover the committee meetings. I'm ok with that. Anyone who is part of a large organization knows that formative work is best done by smaller committees. It's just not practical to have huge groups meeting to discuss and plan.

However, process matters as much as policy. And in this regard, the schools made two mistakes.

1. All community members, not just parents of children currently students in the schools, need to be seen as stakeholders and not bystanders. Certainly, parents may be more affected by what if any changes to the schools are recommended. But those without children in the schools are taxpayers, and they pay no less in taxes for not sending students to the schools. We are often reminded that public education is a public good, and that all of us have something at stake in the success of public schools. Well then, all of us should be kept in the loop. A full 83% of my property taxes go to the schools for one reason or another. I am very interested to know if and why that amount will increase.

2. Even if the committee is meeting privately, people need to be informed more fully of what they are discussing and why. I did not see that in the paper. It may have been in the newsletter to parents. The superintendent indicated that people could contact a committee member to give input. But without being fully informed about the background reasons for forming the committee, what the options are, potential costs and benefits of the status quo or closing one school and expanding another, it is hard for people to give input in a meaningful way.

Once the committee announces a recommendation, it will be interested to see what public support it receives. People who may have endorsed a proposal may object not only on the merits of the final recommendation but because they felt the process was not transparent. Now that the paper has brought the story to everyone's attention, the schools have a chance to remedy this by having several public meetings to give this background. Then the committee can weigh community response as it continues to meet.


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