By EARL WATT
• Leader & Times
Transition may be the word that best describes the position USD No. 480 finds itself in today.
The board recently approved the addition of 15 new employees, the search for a new superintendent has begun, and the increasing number of students has put a squeeze on the facilities.
Many times, Liberal is compared to similar communities like Garden City and Dodge City, but those comparisons usually consider a casual glance at thew new high schools built in those communities while Liberal built its current high school 30 years ago.
A closer look indicates several differences between the approaches of Garden City and Liberal when it comes to ongoing budgeting, long-range planning and replacing leadership.
Community involvement was the biggest difference. A recent survey by the Be Liberal Committee indicated that from a list of 20 community assets, a ‘participatory approach to community decision-making’ ranked last.
That would probably not be the result in Garden City according to the amount of community involvement they use in the planning and operation of the school district.
Recently, Liberal’s school district analyzed its needs through its administration and staff and recommended to the board an additional 15 positions were needed. It was not apparent that any community input was included in that decision.
At the same time, Garden City’s Program Budgeting Committee was recommending cuts, but only after 15 separate committees within the district, which include district representatives as well as community members, listened to proposals from the 15 divisions who had to present a 100 percent budget and a 98 percent budget.
“The board is present at this,” Garden City public information coordinator Roy Cessna said. “They listen to all of the presentations, and then at the end of the evening, each of the budgeting committee members rank the highest priorities from the presentations, and which should be given priority on funding. We do this each year.”
This begins the budget discussion for the Garden City Board, and it provides a public perspective.
Of the 15 divisions, three were recommended to be funded at 100 percent, and the remaining 12 were recommended to be funded at 98 percent which would equate into the reduction of 17.5 full-time employees.
“The school board feels very strongly about it,” Cessna said. “It gets the community involved. It is a transparent process of explaining the programs, where they are, and it is an educational process because it talks about what programs do and educates the community on how big the district is and what we do in the district and why they need to be funded and how funding helps student education.”
While the final decision will rest with the Garden City School Board, the community-driven committees have been able to provide input.
With the resignation of Dr. Lance Stout, the Liberal School Board has begun the process of opening the position for applicants. The board is considering what will comprise its selection committee from within the board and district.
The last time Garden City replaced its superintendent, they used the Kansas Association of School Boards as well as public input to help find the right person for the job.
“We sent letters to community patrons to get input on what they were looking for,” Cessna said. “Parents provided a list of questions to prepare for discussion of what patrons wanted in a superintendent. We held focus group meetings with various groups to identify criteria and characteristics of leadership for the new superintendent.”
Those focus groups included parents, business leaders, community members, students and district employees.
Garden City then took that information and provided it to KASB who whittled down the applicants to those that best met the criteria.
From that list, the school board selected four finalists, and each had a community reception after a board interview.
The community again had a chance to visit with board members about the applicants, and the board then selected the new superintendent after having several opportunities to receive input from the community.
Garden City recently replaced a 58-year-old high school with a state-of-the-art facility, similar to Liberal’s expansion in 1983.
Liberal’s high school is 30 years old, and four years ago a bond issue failed that would have upgraded several schools around the community at a cost of around $60 million.
Garden City’s $97.5 million bond issue passed in 2008, the same year Liberal’s failed, but the approaches were quite different.
Both used DLR, an architectural firm that designs schools.
But Liberal brought DLR in early to make recommendations to the “Blue Ribbon Committee,” which was made up of district employees and community members, and that plan was then shared with the public.
Some teachers shared that they did not have input and were not supportive of the plan. In the end, the plan failed 60 percent to 40 percent.
Garden City did not bring DLR to the table until late in the process.
First, Garden City established a long-range planning committee and a transition committee.
The long-range planning committee was made up of district and public representatives who received public input on where Garden City was headed and what type of facilities would be needed.
The transition committee was also made up of parents, teachers, district representatives and community members, and it studied what schools should have which grades.
“We had public meetings on what we were doing and how those meetings were taking shape,” Cessna said. “We were informing the community on what the committees were looking at.”
The Transition Committee recommended having elementaries that handled kindergarteners through fourth graders, intermediates that taught fifth and sixth graders, middle schools for the seventh and eighth graders, and a high school for freshmen through seniors.
Within the high school, the students would be grouped into four “academies” including a freshman academy, arts and communication, public service, and trade and health science. Instead of students navigating the entire building, they work within their “academy” which helps develop familiarity with their instructors. Each academy has its own core teachers (math, science, etc.).
With a structure and a plan in place, Cessna said they then invited DLR to design the community’s plan which involved not only the new high school, but redesigning the old high school into a middle school, the old middle school into an elementary school, and old elementary to an early childhood learning center, and removing the 26 portable classrooms district-wide.
Teachers reviewed the plans and made adjustments.
“Getting all that input drove how our long range plan would work,” Cessna said. “ We took that to the community and promoted that with the bond issue. We had a lot of community input going into that as well. We had the committee to promote the bond.”
With the massive amount of community input, the plan still passed by a razor-thin margin, 51 percent to 49 percent, an indication as to how vital public involvement in the planning process is to winning a close election.
The expansion did not include athletic facilities until after construction started and private money was donated to help build a new football stadium on the new high school campus.
After the construction, traffic patterns and district boundaries had to be adjusted, and again, the district brought in the parents and the community who helped determine where the new lines would be.
“The community had good input on how they thought the changes would not fit the needs,” Cessna said. “They gave us ideas on how to expand a boundary of one school or not expand it due to sidewalks, and traffic flow. The board approved the changes in 2011.”
The community involvement with the planning of the Garden City district has been a positive component to the overall community plan, according to Cessna.
“The school district is part of the community,” he said. “We try to be open and keep them aware of what is going on. The community gives input on how it is run and how they can shape the district.”
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