Feature

Boundary Changing Without Acrimony

by THOMAS J. GUNNELL

In December 2009, a rapid-growth school district on the Texas Gulf Coast shifted its paradigm of rezoning. Even though half of the Katy Independent School District was affected, we achieved a genuine ownership for boundary changes that would affect more than 11,500 students at five schools.

We accomplished this by seeking recommendations from every patron who wanted to have his or her comment heard and vetting their input through the community as a whole. We also made full use of electronic communication. The result was a superior rezoning plan that enabled the community to track and observe how their input was being considered.

Thomas GunnellThomas Gunnell (center) with members of a design team for a new elementary school in Katy, Texas. Photo by Paul Chung



We abandoned the traditional and always-contentious open forum, an open-microphone format of community feedback. Instead, the district opted for a strategy that pro-actively engaged stakeholders.

The multi-phase approach included these features:

•  public workshops in which structured and actionable suggestions were developed in small working groups; 

•  individual comments shared through an on-line forum;

•  full transparency through the publishing of all comments on a public website;

•  school district responses to suggestions and concerns raised by the public made available to the press and community members; and

•  an Internet campaign that allowed the district’s message to go viral.

Scalable and flexible, this process now is used extensively by the Katy district for high-stakes community issues. The district has applied the same procedures for long-range facility planning, a public information campaign for a facility referendum and the development of recommendations for a recently approved bond election.

A Growth Environment
The Katy Independent School District, located west of Houston, covers 181 square miles and has been in a growth mode for 30 years, expanding from about 8,000 students to 60,300 over that span. Katy remains a destination community based on the reputation of its public schools. The district is projected to enroll nearly 90,000 by the end of the decade.

The steady growth has necessitated boundary modifications annually since at least 1995. We believe we have developed a replicable process of community engagement that invites individuals to define their values and expectations for the school district when considering changes to the school attendance boundaries.

In December 2007, the headlines in the Houston Chronicle painted an accurate picture when they read, “Emotions high at rezoning meeting” and “Katy ISD closes rezoning meeting to public after threats.” The undercurrent in the community suggested a show of force would be needed to protect individual interests. The stage was set to pit neighbor against neighbor in a turf war that would lead to expressions of harm to committee members, threats of lawsuits, an opposition slate of candidates to challenge incumbents in the upcoming school board election and the need to reschedule public meetings under the aegis of a police presence.

As the dust settled in the 2007 rezoning process, a community was left divided, the administration’s moral authority was questioned, and the direction of the district that had been so carefully charted was in jeopardy.

It was obvious to participants and observers of Katy’s 2007 rezoning maelstrom that something needed to change. With that in mind, the district significantly modified the rezoning process the following November. Gone was the limit on selecting only residents who came from the affected areas for the planning committees. These residents invariably had personal agendas in mind as they created recommendations, leading others to question their integrity and intelligence.

The committees were replaced with a process that looked holistically at rezoning, allowing the community to address districtwide challenges of enrollment, capacity and projections. The entire community would be collaboratively engaged in an effort to create a sense of community ownership, yielding through consensus a recommendation best serving the common good.

Process modifications for 2008 were extensive, including these seven steps:

1. Staff reviews data concerning projected enrollment and changing demographics and drafts recommendation for the proposed boundary changes and supporting rationale;

2. Staff identifies criteria for public input in order to consider any change to the recommendation;

3. Original recommendation, rationale and criteria needed (for justifying a consideration to change a recommendation) are publicized;

4. A public hearing is held to receive public input;

5. Staff considers qualifying input;

6. Second and final public hearing is held to share any changes;

7. Staff makes recommendation for attendance boundaries to the school board.

The Katy community as a whole appreciated the process that led to the rezoning of boundaries for three schools in 2008. Even while its structure was a considerable improvement over the previous year, the process still failed to get the community to take ownership of the recommendation. This led us to conduct a root-cause analysis to look at the process at both macro and micro levels.

Having gained a healthy dose of credibility with the community, we wanted to build on the lessons of the 2008 rezoning by crafting a more thorough community-involvement process.

Facilitated Workshops
To maximize community involvement on the front end, an engagement effort started two months prior to the rezoning discussions in fall 2009. Initially, we sought community members’ input on their values concerning district facilities and wanted them to identify options the district should explore before seeking additional funds for new schools.

Given the contentious and sometimes incendiary nature of the open-forum, open-mike concept, the district designed a framework that facilitated presentations based on the facts, while enabling the community to participate in a thoughtful examination of the challenges and offer comments for the district’s consideration.

These facilitated public workshops are a critical component of the framework and easily replicable. The district held several sessions with up to 350 community members at a time. There was an RSVP process for this solicited “feed forward” component (input on the front end) to help realize meaningful engagement.

Community members were randomly assigned to tables of eight to ten, norms were established, and each table selected a spokesperson and scribe. After the district administrators presented summary information, each person was asked to reflect individually on the presentation to prepare for the table discussion. In much the same manner, the tables were asked to discuss the summary and record consensus responses to a series of questions. One rezoning workshop featured these three questions and used the summary as a springboard for discussion:

1. What other thoughts have not been addressed by the district to this point? For example, are there internal/external factors we have not considered?

2. What would you suggest doing to address these considerations/thoughts you identified?

3. Reflecting upon your previous responses, what value(s) would you want to be sure our attendance boundary modifications reflect about the Katy ISD facilities? About the Katy ISD community?

Each table reported on consensus items using a consistent reporting format to help focus on the issues. This eliminated almost all of the rambling, unhelpful and often hurtful comments from an individual wanting to use a microphone as a bully pulpit. A strongly held dissenting view could be shared on a separate comment card. Additionally, the district encouraged participation through a virtual forum that lasted for several weeks. All comments, however submitted, were reviewed in a triage process.

Shared Values
From these sessions, the district began to understand the underlying concerns and expectations of its patrons. The process yielded a consensus of shared values. The six essential community values that emerged for our facility planning use were student-centered, safety, fiscal responsibility, quality, building efficacy and equity.

These shared values are now used in a myriad of other discussions with parents, teachers, students, administrators and community members. On the value of building efficacy, the community said it expected every school to operate near design capacity and that students and programs should migrate as necessary to achieve this capacity. The underlying justification was to minimize costs and maximize opportunities.

This value, coupled with the common response that the district should consider filling all schools to capacity before asking for more capital funding, paved the avenue for discussing boundary modifications.

Pro-active Communication
The community expected transparency in communication, so we quickly created a means to respond to a large amount of public input from the workshops and online forum. Using a triage process, representatives from each major functional area in the administration sorted all comments and created a type of affinity diagram. The comments were moved to action categories, each of which had the appropriate administrators assigned to develop a resolution to the input. The communications department consolidated the responses for posting to the Internet.

Examining 385 comments received during one of the engagement windows, the triage process revealed eight categories: growth (254), existing facilities (47), new facilities (22), curriculum (20), operations and support services (14), student support (13), technology (11), and other (4).

To respond to the inputs, we made a further distinction called referral for action. In our analysis, 60 percent of the issues could be resolved through boundary modification; 14 percent could be satisfied through new construction; 10 percent could be addressed through strategic planning; and another 10 percent could be solved by a simple change within a supporting campus or department.

The overwhelming majority of input reinforced that boundary modifications were expected to balance the load between overcrowded and under-capacity high schools. The charter from the community was clear: We had to consider modifying attendance boundaries for three of our six high schools for the following year.

However, no carte blanche was given to the administration because the community had preferences on the factors to consider in doing so. One such factor would create pure feeder patterns from the junior high schools, to the maximum degree possible. Another factor considered the concept of “grandfathering” to minimize disruption to currently enrolled students, as well as allowing volunteer options for the affected students.

The district’s communications department pro-actively shared all information related to the process. A website included all presentations, process diagrams, feedback received (verbatim) from the public, workshop summaries, administration responses to input and frequently asked questions. Additionally, the district used mass e-mail updates to subscribers and had community partners spread the message through their community e-mail contacts.

We conducted online surveys using Zoomerang — with a twist. Before a patron could answer the questions, he or she had to read through summary data to become aware of the key issues and actions to date. This survey allowed real-time tracking and analysis by the administration as it worked on its next steps.

Through a series of four public workshops and parallel online comments, the administration arrived at a soft recommendation and then used the facilitated process one more time to validate findings. Impressed with the general community spirit and goodwill this format had created, as well as the community’s ability to self-police extreme views, the district focused on criteria that would allow changes to the recommendation that was being developed.

The criteria for input considered at this point included meeting school capacity; keeping neighborhoods together; stabilizing attendance zones; balancing enrollment numbers at neighborhood schools; and minimizing impact on future rezoning. Even at this late point in the comprehensive process, the community identified concerns over grandfathering, transportation, summer sports participation and options for siblings of affected students.

Our fifth and final public workshop addressed the lingering concerns gathered in the previous workshop. The RSVP list indicated hundreds of patrons wanted to express concern about their perceptions of the sibling choice options, grandfathering and transportation. Recognizing these lingering concerns, the district sent information in advance to all who preregistered for the workshop. Responses were received expressing satisfaction with the plan, and only a portion of the hundreds who had submitted RSVPs actually attended.

Public Ownership
This new process generated several benefits. First, it allowed the district to fully use capacity at each school. Schools at or near capacity are more efficient from a program perspective. Balancing capacities allowed all schools to receive sufficient funding to maintain a full spectrum of advanced programs. Conversely, under-enrolled schools were in danger of losing programs due to inadequate program enrollment and funding.

The attendance boundary modification also resulted in a significant decrease in the use of portable classrooms, providing students with access to better facilities and learning tools in regular classrooms. We saved more than $1 million by avoiding new portable purchases.

The boundary changes also allowed the district to align the feeder patterns from the junior high schools so all students at a junior high would attend the same high school. The impact on teaching and learning cannot be overstated, as this continuum allowed for better tracking and support of individual students and the performance of their teachers.

Ultimately, we believe these smoother transitions will result in improved test scores and better course grades. They also enable important feedback and opportunities for the high school and feeder junior highs to vertically align their curriculums.

Finally, the community’s ownership of the decision created a positive environment, which is critical for learning to happen. Katy’s seven-step process has now been used effectively three times since.

In February 2010, the newspaper headline read, “Parents participate in Katy ISD boundary discussions.” Despite the neutral tone, we considered that a rave review.

Tom Gunnell is chief operations officer of the Katy Independent School District in Katy, Texas. E-mail: thomasjgunnell@katyisd.org