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D-200 stalls on community engagement proposal

After three meetings attempting a consensus on Community Unit School District 200's proposed community engagement process, the Board of Education remains divided.

The board returned to the issue of employing UNICOM•ARC, a communications firm, to poll area residents about what they believe the board's priorities should be during a Committee of the Whole meeting Oct. 23.

While most of the board supports UNICOM's proposed series of community meetings to gather feedback, two members remain cautious of the proposal's nearly $50,000 cost.

Board member Jim Mathieson said that he was wary of entering into a contract that could ultimately yield results too broad, obvious or expensive to be helpful.

He said that the board already has several initiatives, such as technology and building plans, that are and should be priorities.

"We've got all these things in play, now we've just got to figure out how to pay for them," Mathieson said. "If it's all wish list things, it doesn't tell me anything, because we can't afford those wish lists."

Board member Jim Gambaiani said that while he supported a community engagement process he believed there may be internal options the board hasn't considered. He said the board could reach the community through a simple approach, with the appropriate time investment.

Gambaiani also said he thought UNICOM's separation of the board, a key selling point, was actually a drawback.

"I believe that the community engagement should be the board participating actively in those sessions and really being the face to give all these people across the district an opportunity to know that the board is fully committed and interested in their comments in a public setting," he said.

Rosemary Swanson, a board member and former marketing research analyst, said designing an engagement process and analyzing the data was an art form.

"I know without a shadow of a doubt that, if the question is 'Can we just do this on our own, as opposed to go out to some professional firm?,' we cannot," she said. "We can ask some questions, but we would never be able to have the resources that a professional firm can bring."

Swanson said that the board needs to be clear about what it is hoping to get out of the process, be it asking the community for trade-offs to avoid a wish list or ensuring a number of respondents are among the 70 to 75 percent of district residents who don't have school-aged children.

Board Vice President Jim Vroman said that UNICOM's approach would yield meaningful feedback.

"A true community engagement isn't directed to achieve a specific result, it's directed to obtain from the community what it believes the priorities for our district should be," he said.

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