Community Engagement: Consensus Building for Sustainable Change

Organizations today are constantly changing–constantly. This is true of school districts as well, whether their enrollment is expanding or decreasing, new facilities are being added or older ones being closed, grade configurations are being tweaked or totally realigned.

Over the past fifteen years, Howick Associates has worked with over 40 school districts to design and facilitate community engagement discussions that range from addressing closing of school buildings, changing of school boundaries and providing facility advisory recommendations. A fundamental question that precedes all of these is “What is your proactive strategy for engaging the public in a meaningful way?” There are many ways to do this and the methods you choose can be determined depending upon your purpose, be it to inform, consult, involve or collaborate with your community (think of this on a continuum). All have their merits and we can help you determine the best method based on your purpose, what you’ve done in the past, and what your board is willing to support.

Whereas there are many ways to structure the discussions and decision-making on these matters, there are fundamental principles that guide community engagement so that the change is sustainable. One principle is to make sure the right people are in the room. Districts need to ensure that representatives of the “whole system” are engaged in the process, and that can mean that the group is not only larger than originally conceived, but more diverse—not the usual “cast of characters.”

Another principle is that participants have a keen understanding of the past and how history has shaped the situation today. The phrase “think globally and act locally” comes to play here, and this can be a time for historians to share their knowledge and newcomers to appreciate the decisions of the past.

Finding common ground and reaching a consensus on changing school boundaries, closing a school, or determining the specifics of a referendum is almost always achievable. As the expression goes, “the game is won in the planning,” and that is what we do well.


With continued growth in student population in The Middleton Cross Plains Area School District, new schools are being built, resulting in the need to redistrict school boundaries. Based on his experience and reputation in working with other districts, Drew Howick provided his expertise in the design and facilitation of a series of meetings of our Internal Attendance Boundary Committee, which consisted of approximately twenty-five parents and residents. Drew partnered with our staff to plan each session in detail and then skillfully led each committee meeting over a period of six months. Drew employed a variety of methods that enabled ALL committee members to actively engage in discussions and to explore many options that met criteria that was identified by the Board. Drew helped to create a “safe environment” where diverse perspectives where willingly shared, options were extensively reviewed, and ultimately where a consensus was achieved. The committee members gave high marks to Drew for his ability to keep the group on task while encouraging all members to express their perspective. The board and staff are very appreciative of Drew’s contribution to this challenging process and we look forward to working with him in the future.

Bob Green
President, Middleton Cross Plains Area School District

Our School Board recently went through the process of changing elementary and middle school attendance area boundaries. That activity typically creates a lot of angst and discord among some parents. We hired Drew Howick to facilitate a large committee comprised of parents, staff and Board members and lead us to a decision. Over the course of several months and numerous meetings, the committee reached consensus on recommendations to the Board. Because of the expert, sensitive and wise architecture of the meeting agendas and deft facilitation by Mr. Howick, the process was thorough and satisfying to all committee members and lead to good decisions by the Board. I give Drew Howick my highest recommendation if you are looking for a skilled, customer service oriented facilitator for any endeavor.

Dean Gorrell
Superintendent, Verona School District