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District 200 talks future of community outreach, advisory committee

WHEATON – Community engagement has been a significant aspect of public dialogue in Community Unit School District 200 in recent years.

During its May 27 meeting, the district's Board of Education discussed how to better reach out to residents for feedback – particularly those without children in the district.

Superintendent Jeff Schuler said the need to do so was one of the district's biggest takeaways from its 2014 engagement effort, Engage 200.

"One of the largest pieces of feedback that we heard from our community loud and clear in Engage 200 was 'keep the conversation going,'" said district Communications Director Erica Loiacono.

Schuler said the goal over the last year has been to implement a few strategies for community conversation while looking at systemic changes to improve the flow of communication between residents, organizations and the district.

Though the district created a board community engagement committee, a more direct approach is required, he said.

To that end, Loiacono said, staff have begun creating a work plan regarding various agencies, groups and demographics to connect with to reach the 75 percent of residents without district students.

The plan also includes the possibility of a community advisory committee, ideally with a diverse selection of residents.

Schuler said the need for a committee became apparent after several residents complained about lack of transparency surrounding a contract to let Verizon Wireless replace a light pole near Wheaton Warrenville South High School's Grange Field with a taller, 105-foot pole to host cellphone antennas.

"I think what came out of that ... was that we've got some groups in the community that we have regular relationships with," he said. "But I don't know that we have one group with a cross-section of informed, involved folks that we can regularly bring ideas to."

He hopes the committee can be an important bridge between the community and the district for curriculum changes, concerns or unexpected needs and developments.

The board supported both the committee and making an effort to partner with other organizations to spread community dialogue.

"I think we'll be able to get the word out and they're going to love it – everybody wants their opinion heard, especially as we move on and have some big issues coming up," board member Joann Coghill said.

Board member Jim Gambaiani said the committee will only be effective if the district works to ensure it includes a wide range of residents.

"The makeup is the most important thing, and if we're not reaching the right people that we need to reach, that committee – while it will serve a purpose – I don't think it will serve the overall purpose," he said.

Schuler said he and staff will work over the summer to create a charter for the committee, defining its goals and relationship with the board. The board can then provide input on groups to reach out to, but Schuler warned against inadvertently filling the committee with district allies or those familiar with the district.

"You've got to have some critics on there as well, because if you get your critics and you put them in the right situation where they have to at least articulate what's behind the rationale, it does help you understand what people are thinking and how people may interpret a decision that you put out," he said.

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