A school is a community resource to the extent that it is willing to share.
There’s a good deal of buzz these days (even here) about payments and services in lieu of taxes (the infamous PILOTs and SILOTs), charges and demands for services that communities are attempting to levy on independent schools and other nonprofits to meet growing budget gaps. We have to ask ourselves who can blame these communities, on one level, while on another it looks a bit like extortion, a kind of extralegal quid pro quo in which the school is just a convenient target of opportunity. Schools are advised to pre-empt such demands by issuing “community impact statements,” meticulous and carefully calculated enumerations of the ways in which the school contributes financial value and social capital—as an employer, as a destination, as a consuming entity, and as a physical resource.
The community impact statement is a good idea, and just the other day we were reminded of the astonishing regional value of a large, thriving institution by a study featuring a Canadian school—all the better since the study had been conducted by a university business school. The study neatly indentifies specific benefits provided by the school and makes appropriate use of the multiplier effect to arrive at a hefty dollar amount—perhaps hefty enough in a case like this to lower the volume of chatter about PILOTs. The study, well promoted by press release, offers a solid assurance of the school’s value as a resource.
But the school that really wants to make its mark as a resource had better back up such statements with accomplishments that give evidence of real impact. I do not doubt for a second the estimates in responsibly made studies, but there is a qualitative distinction between a number and a palpable sense of benefit. I admit that I am challenged to define that distinction well or even suggest ways to discern it, but here’s a go at the problem:
A school’s interactions with its external community can be measured not simply by employment numbers, the amount the schools spends on goods and services, or the number of students from the local community who attend. These are important figures, of course, but equally important are the ways in which the school makes known its intent and its interests with regard to the community. Do school governors and administrators participate in local affairs? Does the school make an effort to work with local vendors and support local businesses? Do students, families, and faculty participate in the cultural life of the community as real partners rather than only in ways that showcase the school and its successes? Do the school’s graduates play an active role in the community at large? Is the school proactively responsible in its environmentaI and even aesthetic citizenship? Is there a sense of mutual pride and affection between the school to its external community?
Most schools have found some ways to open their doors and campuses to their local communities—Little League on the practice fields, community theater in the auditorium, Saturday morning children’s art classes in the studio. Most have also found ways for students to provide service in the community, and the best of such programs have situated themselves in a deep understanding of “place” in the shared context the community and the school’s mission rather in notions of “community service hours.” Some schools have targeted at least some of their financial aid budgets for promising local students, and in a few places (see this National Association of Independent Schools advisory–you’ll need to log in, I fear–for some examples) independent schools are taking first steps toward professional partnerships with public school systems and public school teachers and even involving themselves in charter school development. These are all good things, but they become excellent things when schools engage in them not simply to do what is necessary to appease the community or show off their own glories. What is required is honest and thoughtful good will and a full and generous understanding of both the community’s and the school’s needs and resources; this is the nature of partnerships with real impact. A school that can create such partnerships will seldom feel threatened by community economic or political pressures.
This is the year for “advancing our public purpose” in independent schools. In order to really to do this, schools and school people need to keep working to develop a mindset in which their external community is not simply an accident of founding, an audience, or an adversary to be kept at bay. Our public purpose is not just a nice idea or turn of phrase but an expectation—and we need to remind ourselves that our very existence is based on a social contract, manifest in our special status with regard to taxation and regulation. While as schools we set out to achieve our own missions, we have an implied mission to make our work worthy of that special status by living up to a broader and higher purpose, in our communities as well as on our campuses.