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In the past weeks, the Sedona-Oak Creek School District’s strategic planning committee has doubled down on preparing its goals — and has stumbled upon layers of concerns from stakeholders before it can move forward.

Both committee members and district staff have brought up immediate obstacles to planning, such as the budget crisis and declining enrollment.

Past problems, including school consolidation, implementing new educational programs and miscommunication within the district, also linger.

Discussion about these issues has slowed the strategic development process and caused the committee to take a step back to consider its progress.

“While there has been discussion of potential goals and objectives that will have an impact on the future of the district, there has been little discussion about the critical, immediate issues that face the district for the next school year,” said Deana DeWitt, committee member and curriculum and instruction director for the district, after the committee’s meeting on Jan. 23. “In my opinion, how these issues are addressed now will greatly contribute to the success or failure of future initiatives.”

During the committee’s Jan. 23 meeting, committee facilitator Don Groves, an education consultant, gave a presentation providing examples of five main goals and sample objectives. Goals included educational programming; inclusion, unity and cohesion; marketing; fundraising and financing; and recruiting and retaining staff.

Highlights of Groves’ suggested objectives included encouraging earnest discussions among all staff under the inclusion, unity and cohesion goal; establishing a SedonaOak Creek education foundation under the funding goal; attracting new families and students to the district under marketing; increasing teacher salaries under retention; and under educational programming, introducing multiple pathways of learning at the junior high and high school.

Goals Spark Discussion

During the following meeting Jan. 30, staff from West Sedona and Sedona Red Rock Junior High and High schools read statements expressing concern about the “recommendation to drastically change the junior/senior high school” during the previous week’s meeting.

The staff asked for more time to examine data, gather student and staff input and research types of educational models.

In a statement, the West Sedona staff echoed the junior and senior high school staff’s request.

“We want our current and new superintendent and school board members to deal with the needs of our district for the 2018-19 school year, which includes forecasting realistically for the 860 students we will have, down from 930 — a loss of 70 students,” the letter concluded.

The letters sparked a long conversation among the nearly 40 committee members and district stakeholders present. Topics of discussion included the immediate budget crisis, declining enrollment, school consolidation and implementing new educational programs.

Most of the teachers’ objections arose from the suggestion about implementing multiple learning pathways at the junior high and high school level.

With Big Park Community School’s International Baccalaureate program candidacy and West Sedona School’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math accreditation, each school provides a specialized take on education. In an effort to streamline education in the district and create consistency from kindergarten through 12th grade, a suggested objective was to create continued IB and STEM opportunities in junior high and high school.

However, both initiatives at the elementary schools required extensive training and certification for the teachers, as well as rigorous examination from outside accreditors. Undertaking a similar process at the secondary level would be a serious undertaking.

“That’s a huge, huge shift. It takes training,” said junior high school principal Jay Litwicki after the Jan. 30 meeting. “... I think we need more than three months to figure that out.”

The other pressing concern brought up for debate was funding. As district finance director Heather ShawBurton reported at the last Governing Board meeting, the school district faces a budget shortfall for the next school year. This has prompted concern that the needed cuts will come from teaching positions, though Governing Board President Randy Hawley, who is a member of the strategic planning committee, assured those at the meeting that the district would not be firing teachers.

The spectre of the movement to close Big Park Community School two years ago lingers; several committee members brought it up as a potential financial solution, as well as the idea to close West Sedona School, or close both schools and open a new elementary campus.

Since the meeting, Hawley has asked district administration to put together a report describing what it would look like if Big Park closed, if West Sedona closed and if both closed and a new elementary campus was opened.

While little on the official agenda of the Jan. 30 meeting was resolved, Groves said the discussion at the meeting was necessary before the strategic planning committee can move forward.

“I thought our last meeting — amid teacher concerns over budget cuts and suggestions of how the educational program could better prepare students for an exponentially changing future and be competitive with other schools — was very productive,” Groves said after the meeting. “Since this is a from the ground up process, it is essential that we have teacher input in order to make well-thoughtout recommendations to the Governing Board and buy-in from all stakeholder groups. I have confidence in the process. In the end, we will develop objectives for the five goals adopted by the strategic development team. It will take a little more time and patience to do it correctly.”

Next Steps

In light of the district staff’s response, Groves recommended each school principal convene with their staffs to discuss what goals and objectives they would like to see from the committee.

Groves, who is also president of Big Park’s Site Council, recommended principals prompt their staffs to consider how schools “can prepare students to be successful in an exponentially changing world,” how to build on programs the schools already have and how the district can be competitive in its offerings in order to attract students.

“We’re at a critical point in the process right now,” Hawley said. “The next meetings will be difficult in taking information and making goals, but I think people will be pleased with the results.”

Once each school staff has been able to meet and draft their own ideas for goals and objectives, the strategic planning committee will schedule its next meeting to discuss. As it’s a busy time of year with budget discussions, standardized testing and other typical school concerns, it could be late February or early March before the committee meets again.

“People on staff are stressed right now with many looming budget cuts and state financing issues,” Big Park principal Debbie Jones said. “With all of this, the search for a new superintendent, the need to address the [budget] override and multiple projects teachers are working on — curricular mapping, salary committee, creating STEM and IB units of instruction, and all of the classroom needs — it is hard to keep the focus on looking forward and planning for a better future.”

Committee representatives from every part of the district shared similar sentiments in the need to slow down and listen to one another.

“It seems to me that we need some more of these kinds of discussions before we can really reach a point of moving forward together,” said Carolyn Fisher, a committee member and volunteer who coordinates the Sedona Literacy Program for Big Park and West Sedona. “... We’re not yet ready to develop a strategic plan for the district that most teachers, parents, administrators, taxpayers and students will get behind.”

Katie Chorlton, president of Big Park’s Parent Teacher Student Association, said, “There’s a lot of tension because of these differences, and I think we have to find a way to talk about this in order to come to a mutual understanding and move forward with a common purpose.”

There’s been a common call, since the community forums at the beginning of the strategic planning process, for transparent and up-front communication throughout the district. The sentiment carries on, even more so after the Jan. 30 meeting turned into an impromptu forum.

“I hope that we begin to listen to each other,” said Melissa Schrader, president of West Sedona’s Parent Teacher Association. “That is the only thing that is ever going to make a difference.”

Rebekah Wahlberg can be reached at 282-7795 ext. 117, or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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