Deciding on how much community engagement to do before formulating ideas on overcrowding issues in the San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District is a concern for its Next Steps Advisory Committee.
The committee is looking at hosting what could end up being 50 meetings to gather feedback on ways of alleviating the lack of facilities in the district, with potential town halls, focus groups, community forums, attending preexisting events and other strategies. Proposed community engagement meeting dates are for mid-September and the month of October. Some expressed concerns about the engagement being too drawn out.
“We’d be looking at this stuff effectively in early January at best,” said committee member Mark Hudak. “November and December are worrisome to me from a timing standpoint. We just have to be cognizant of giving people the opportunity to give input, but being over inclusive and not staying on task has its dangers too.”
Hudak suggested holding eight to 10 focused meetings, while soliciting others with surveys.
Conversely, Superintendent Cynthia Simms noted the engagement process will be very important and that the Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center, which may facilitate the community engagement, will sort and compile information efficiently.
“This is an opportunity to express opinions; I don’t think we want to miss those points,” she said. “Last time we did not actively engage the support staff.”
The last time Simms is referring to is the $130 million bond measure, which only received 46.6 percent approval, short of 55 percent voter approval it required in November 2013. The district’s Board of Trustees placed Measure P on the ballot this summer to rebuild and expand Bowditch Middle School to add Foster City fifth-graders and reopen Knolls Elementary School in San Mateo for the 2016-17 school year. It would have cost property owners $19 per $100,000 assessed property value.
“People have asked what is the Next Steps’ job? External and internal group engagement,” Simms said. “It’s a big job, there’s no way around it. … If we say this has to be done by the end of October, they’ll (Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center) be done by the end of October. It’s up to you (the committee) on how much input you want.”
Through the outreach work, the committee is hoping to not only find overcrowding solutions, but to also find ways to get a bond measure passed to finance them.
Stakeholders the committee is looking to reach out to include PTAs, teachers, parents, newspapers, the “No on P” campaign, city staff, unions, environmental groups, politicians such as state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, chambers of commerce in San Mateo and Foster City, church groups, site councils, Realtors, senior citizens and others. Other engagement strategies the group is looking at are phone surveys, home visits, advertising, ice cream socials, design thinking events, creating a website for Next Steps and other methods.
Foster City Mayor Charlie Bronitsky, along with City Manager Jim Hardy, and San Mateo Mayor Robert Ross, along with City Manager Larry Patterson, took part in a recent meeting to address school capacity and equity issues when it comes to increasing enrollment.
Overall, making sure to involve the public in the process is very important, many committee members agreed.
“I think the risk would be so great not to do this,” said committee member Larry Lowenthal.
Hudak ultimately agreed, but does think the process should be streamlined to a certain extent, so people have an opportunity to speak without it becoming overwhelming.
“During my eight years on the school board, I learned process is much more important in the school setting than in the other settings in which I find myself,” he said. “Although I’m somewhat skeptical we can be done with all this, I find myself reaching the same conclusion as I think everyone else does. If we don’t go through it, the process will come back to haunt us.”
Meanwhile, Ed Coady, board trustee and committee member, did agree the process seems a bit ambitious, but observed community outreach for a new calendar schedule and noticed it was well done. Committee member Gloria Brown noted the group is going to need quite a few facilitators.
“I just think we’ll need the cream of the crop — whatever that looks like,” she said.
Following the community feedback, Next Steps’ job is to narrow it down and say these are the best six ideas and ask the community what it thinks about them, Simms said.
Additionally, Simms suggested the for Next Steps members give updates to the school board themselves.
“It humanizes our committee if the public and board members see us,” Lowenthal said. “We might want to rotate through so each face gets one showing in front of the board and those other stakeholders.”
At the next committee meeting, consultants will bring a community engagement proposal.
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