An op-ed from frequent DM commenter and some time contributor Scott…
If you’re trying to make something happen that’s contingent on consensus-building, the greatest out-of-the-gate win you can achieve is defining the terms of the conversation.
If you set the terms, you control the discussion. You dictate what is and isn’t on the table and what will or won’t be topics of consideration by decision-makers.
It’s not just a procedural matter. For those skilled in context-setting, it can mean an 80% victory before you even get started. And, for those who enjoy the theatrics and pageantry of the public process as much as I do, it presents a certain irony.
A frequent item of discussion here on Decatur Metro is the City Schools of Decatur’s inability to communicate effectively and yet, in terms of wielding this particular tool of process manipulation, their mastery is unmatched.
Consider the master plan initiative — specifically as it relates to DHS and Renfroe expansion — discussed recently. On the table are a variety of growth and expansion scenarios and therein lies the coy subversion afoot. That is, the entire premise begins with and is built upon the assumption that we must grow to accommodate increasing enrollment. But is that true?
First, some context. The business of running school systems and, with it, the principles and methodologies considered best practices, are rooted in the suburban expansion that has characterized growth in our country for the past 75 years. That’s what the modern school administrator knows how to do and, in many (if not most) places, it’s entirely appropriate. In short, land is not a limitation. So long as a city or county is actively courting residential growth and market demand exists to support it, greenfields fill up with subdivisions. And when they do, school systems purchase large tracts of land and build new facilities to accommodate the growth.
Minus the land acquisition, that’s exactly the tact being taken here in Decatur. The only question being asked is, how should the details of expansion shake out?
But what if the debate began not with “how should we grow” but with “should we grow”?
Think about it. Much of what’s happening — or poised to happen — in Decatur has been induced demand. That is, people are coming here because the school system has become increasingly attractive. The more attractive it becomes, the more people who may not have considered Decatur for whatever reason begin doing so. And there’s no greater inducement moving forward than putting forth this message:
Come! Not only will you benefit from the enviable quality of life presented by the city but we’ll construct all new facilities to accommodate your children!
I propose a different proposition. What if, instead, our message was this?:
We’re a small town with a small school system. We like it that way. Walkable, human-scaled neighborhood schools are a fundamental component of the quality of life we not only enjoy but pay a premium for, and we’ve got facilities in place to serve our four square miles. For all intents and purposes, we’re built out. So, as a matter of policy, we won’t be building any more schools or making drastic changes to the ones we have. We’ll maintain and update our facilities as necessary but fluctuations in growth will be managed with temporary measures.
Consider the implications, especially as it relates to issues of frustration discussed often here on DM. First, the teardown issue. Teardowns are in increasing demand because families with children looking to get into the school system want large, new houses with, some would argue, suburban sensibilities. But what if our schools no longer operated by a policy of gold-plated accommodation? Would that demand continue to grow or would it level out, maybe even drop off? Would some percentage of the folks currently viewing Decatur as a good place to raise their kids choose elsewhere? I believe they would.
Markets stabilize. That’s what they do.
This impacts concerns over the demographic make-up of our downtown residents as well. So long as CSD, as a matter of policy, demonstrates that any enrollment will be accommodated and that that accommodation will take the form of shiny, new facilities, there will be some number of those who accept the trade-off of not having a kid-friendly single family home and, instead, choose to live downtown. But what if the subtext told a different story? What if it said, sure, you can rent downtown to get access to Decatur schools but do so knowing that excess enrollment might be accommodated in a less conventional manner?
Those are the kinds of questions — important, policy-implication questions — not being considered because CSD has already set the terms of the conversation. Or at least they think they have. So I’d like to shake things up a bit because, ultimately, the conversation that occurs is not predestined. It’s up to the people of Decatur.
Introducing: Option Zero, an alternative policy approach whereby we stop inducing further market demand by accommodating it with unsustainable — or, at the very least, expensive — growth initiatives.
Option Zero does not say that we will stop investing in the quality of our schools or in the education of Decatur kids. It says that our quality of education is more dependent on the commitment and character of our people and system than on the nature of our facilities.
Will such a policy result in trailers (errrr, learning cottages) to manage fluctuating enrollments? Almost without a doubt, especially while the impact of new policies radiates outward to affect consumer choices, and that’s something that will require debate to determine whether or not it’s a trade-off we’re willing to accept.
But that debate will never happen under the terms of the present conversation set by CSD.
Personally, I don’t even know if, given all choices, I’d choose Option Zero. But I believe the city is fundamentally shortchanged if it’s not at least discussed. And remember, we have not one, but two opportunities to define the outcome. First, CSD cannot just float a general obligation bond. Only the city commission can do that, which means that, at least in theory, expansion efforts could be shut down before they even reached the ballot box. But say our city leadership decides to issue the bond anyways. Even then, it will be subject to a public vote.
Don’t we want that vote to be as informed as possible, with consideration of all alternatives and not just the ones, in their myopic view, preferred by CSD? I do. So have at it, DM Nation. Let this be the moment we take control of the conversation.