Community survey to center school facilities
- Published: April 27, 2023
Ed. note: This story has been edited following updated information the News received after this week’s issue went to print — namely, that the survey described below will be available to complete via hard copy. The survey will only be available for completion online.
Update, 2:45 p.m.: The News learned this afternoon that the Ohio State University Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability will not be officially designing or conducting the survey due to the short timeline and complexity of the issue. The survey will be delayed. More information will be provided in next week’s edition of the News. The article below has been edited to reflect this new information.
To borrow from Jane Austen: It is a truth universally acknowledged that, if a decision is going to affect Yellow Springs, everyone in Yellow Springs wants to be part of making it.
As the community heads toward facing the third vote in five years on how best to address upgrading local schools, two practitioners of conflict engagement aim to provide a platform for as many of its voices as possible.
This week, those practitioners, Jay Rothman and Daniela Cohen, announced that they have been working to engage the community to provide widespread feedback on Yellow Springs Schools facilities upgrade options. With input from Rothman and Cohen, the Yellow Springs Community Foundation aims to facilitate a community opinion survey on the issue.
More information about how to complete the survey, and when, will appear in next week’s issue of the news.
Engaging conflict as a community
The failures of levies in 2018 and 2021 that were set to address aging school facilities have been oft-cited by community members as outliers in the history of a community that prides itself on saying “yes” at the polls. The reasons for why the levies did not pass are different depending on who you ask, but that difference of opinion has engendered some community discord over the last several years, as reflected in the Community Forum pages of the News, on social media and in downtown conversations between neighbors and friends.
In conversation with the News this week, Cohen and Rothman said the new community survey is intended to head off potential discord with regard to school facilities by giving local residents a way to communicate their opinions directly to the school board.
“One of the reasons things oftentimes seem uncivil is that people feel like they’re not being heard, or that their opinion doesn’t matter,” Rothman said. “And this [survey] says exactly the opposite. Everybody’s voice really matters and their opinion really counts.”
In a nutshell, the survey will ask local residents to provide their opinions on each of the facilities options the school board is considering. Though the survey is not sponsored by the school district, the data it collects will be delivered to the school board before the May 22 meeting wherein the board must make its decision about what to place on an upcoming ballot.
“We want to hear [from the community] whether they can support any one of these options — or none of them,” Rothman said. “And of the ones that they can support, what do they value most? And of all of them, what concerns them? That’s really the purpose of this survey.”
A longtime conflict engagement researcher and teacher, Rothman is the founder of The ARIA Group, which aims to “creatively engage conflict as a doorway for learning and change.” Cohen, a Vancouver, British Columbia, resident, holds a master’s degree in conflict analysis and management, and said she began working with Rothman after discovering and being intrigued by the ARIA model.
“I come from South Africa, where there’s a lot of deep-rooted identity-based conflict,” she said. “When I discovered Jay’s model, I thought it would be amazing to apply there. … [Later] I reached out to Jay and we started a conversation, and from there we started to collaborate.”
Rothman and Cohen first worked together in fall 2022 when they helped lead the Yellow Springs Development Corporation, or YSDC, in a visioning process. Though that process was ostensibly aimed at helping the YSDC suss out its future, the two said it was also a “test pilot” for a potential larger, communitywide visioning process.
“We thought, ‘Can we support this town to have an overarching vision that might enable it to be a little less polarized around specific decisions?’” Rothman said.
He added that the test pilot “made some progress,” but shifted focus after discussions he had with school board members and district employees at YSDC meetings.
“The next thing was, ‘Oh boy, the polarization over the school issues is really hot and heavy,’” he said. “So now, instead of visioning the future, what are these things from the past that we need to address in collaboration?”
Rothman said he spoke with district staff this January about the possibility of helping the process of discussing school levies in the public sphere “move a little bit more smoothly this time.” He spent a month interacting with school board members, district staff and community groups, gauging interest in creating “more collaboration and civility” around facilities discussions. What he found, he said, were passion, commitment and concern with regard to the state of the schools from every corner.
“All those things are wonderful — and they’re also intense,” Rothman said. “The failures of the last two levies, I think, heightens all of those feelings.”
What he also found, he added, was interest in using conflict engagement methods to address those feelings in community conversation. Rothman partnered with the Community Foundation to commission the work and brought Cohen on board to help facilitate conversation. In March, the Village Mediation Program hosted a community event at Mills Lawn that utilized the “World Cafe” method, a collaborative dialogue process designed for large-group discussion.
At the World Cafe event, which was attended by several dozen villagers, attendees discussed their values with regard to the community in general, and later, with school facilities in mind. One of the main topics of discussion between various small groups and the larger group as a whole was the issue of affordability, and how increased tax burdens might affect low-income residents.
In response to those discussions, a loan fund called “Leave No One Behind” is currently being researched in conjunction with the Community Foundation in order to address challenges lower-income residents may face due to cost. The News aims to share details about the plan as they become available.
Another outcome of the event was that attendees were challenged to share conditions for successful dialogue around school facilities, and to imagine how each attendee might contribute to moving that dialogue forward. Cohen said she sees the upcoming community survey as a way to continue that dialogue.
“I think what [the World Cafe] highlighted — and this is part of the survey’s purpose as well — is that, when people can see wider information perspectives, it can reduce that polarization,” she said.
Seeing wider perspectives via the survey, Cohen added, can best be accomplished with widespread participation.
“I think one of the feelings is that only limited people can attend [school board meetings and listening sessions],” Cohen said. “So the survey is helping to get a much broader distribution; we can get much more input from the community at large by making it as accessible as possible.”
With accessibility in mind, and in conjunction with the distribution of the survey, Yellow Springs Schools Treasurer Jay McGrath will host two informational events at the Senior Center on Thursday, May 4, 4–6 p.m., and Tuesday, May 9, 11:30 a.m.–1 p.m. McGrath will provide information on the tax implications of the facilities upgrade options currently being considered by the board. Following each presentation, volunteers will be on hand to help attendees determine what each option might cost them individually in taxes each year.
Rothman said he hopes the presentations from McGrath will embolden local residents to complete the surveys. Echoing Cohen’s words, he encouraged folks to make sure their voices are heard.
“We really, really hope hundreds and hundreds of people respond to [the survey] to give the board and each other their opinion on these options,” he said. “We want to hear their voices as much as possible.”
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