From the May/June 2019 Net Assets magazine
With summer just ahead, independent schools are ramping up plans to update and refresh existing facilities and bring new facilities online. For our communities, improved and expanded footprints are a visible representation of how we invest in our programs, demonstrate our value propositions and innovate at every level. Unfortunately, another significant phenomenon often occurs simultaneously with independent school construction. At a time when civilized discourse may be at an all-time low, far too many schools find themselves embroiled in heated battles with surrounding neighborhoods. NIMBYism (NIMBY stands for not in my backyard) is alive and well.
On its face, there are far worse neighbors than an independent school, which educates students, hosts educational events, and provides summer programming open to the entire community. Further, often overlooked is our positive economic impact. Our towns, cities and states benefit greatly from the jobs we create, the taxes we pay, the goods and services we (and our students and employees) purchase, and yes, the funds we pour into facilities. What’s more, we do all of this at a lower cost to taxpayers than public schools. In most cases, in fact, schools’ facilities improvements are supported by endowments, fundraising, tax-exempt bond financing or a combination of all three.
Q: What’s the business officer’s role in communicating with neighbors?
A: In most cases, the business officer has oversight of architects, construction, etc. because of the costs involved for the school. Secondly, they play a key role because they possess the best and most up-to-date information on the project (timing, noise levels, interference with traffic). And third, sometimes it is strategically important for the business officer to represent the school in tenuous situations. This can provide cover for the head of school, potentially providing capital that can be used for another day.
Q: What’s the best strategy you’ve seen a school use to defuse community tensions?
A: My favorite strategy is inviting neighbors to an exclusive program. This provides an opportunity for the school to personalize relationships in a way that is aligned with the school’s mission.
Q: Have you ever been one of those angry neighbors?
A: As an independent school parent, I have been a victim of an angry neighbor. It does not feel good at 7:40 in the morning when you are simply trying to drop your daughter off at school. It’s also not something I wish to have my daughter witness. I would much prefer everyone just get along.
So, what is it about independent schools that unleashes the wrath of so many neighbors? More importantly, what can we do to help mitigate the tensions?
Related content: Town and Gown and Common Ground
The answers to both questions are relatively consistent. Increased traffic congestion, lane closures, construction noise and parking issues top the lists of the major concerns neighbors typically have about campus improvements. The consistency of these concerns also allows us to be consistent in addressing them proactively and successfully. From fellow business officers and other school leaders, the message is clear: Job one is to build relationships with the surrounding community year-round, not just when it is time for an “ask.” Inform neighbors about pending projects as far in advance as possible. Give them a forum throughout the process to express their concerns authentically, and to know that school leadership hears them. Demonstrate how you are responding to expressed concerns, and if you cannot respond to their satisfaction, explain why in a manner they can easily understand.
Amid so much talk of building walls and protecting boundaries, it seems apt at this time to revisit the poem “Mending Wall,” in which Robert Frost explored the barriers that can keep neighbors from understanding one another. Our schools add value to the communities they serve in a multitude of ways, including world-class facilities. The best way for these enhancements to be appreciated is for our leaders to invest in relationships that extend well beyond our boundaries. Open communications, after all, make for the best kinds of neighbors.
Download a PDF of this article.#Facilities
Town and Gown and Common Ground
Every Inch a Learning Space
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