Keith Dixon: School facility planning process gets under way

I grew up on a farm in Colorado. We had beef cattle, and to save money on feed, we took the herd to the mountains every summer and let them run free to graze.

I grew up on a farm in Colorado. We had beef cattle, and to save money on feed, we took the herd to the mountains every summer and let them run free to graze.

At 11 years old, I felt capable enough to take the cattle to the mountains by myself, and I shared this idea with my father. He asked how I planned to get there, and I described a fairly detailed route. My father slowly nodded and then said, "Sure, go ahead."

Those were the days when 11-year-old farm children could go off for periods of time without direct parental supervision. I asked a friend to go with me. We got on our horses and got the cattle headed down the road. Everything was fine until we reached a fork in the trail.

According to my detailed route, we were to go to the left; the cattle, not aware of my plan, went to the right. My friend and I tried to get them to change direction, but they didn't pay any attention. We could no more get those cattle to follow us than the man in the moon.

At first, I panicked, but my friend and I soon realized that while the cattle weren't following my plan, they were still headed toward the mountains. We relaxed and simply rode with the herd, did what we could to make sure they found food and water and were safe, and helped round up stragglers. We eventually reached the mountains, dropped off the cattle, and headed for home.


I showed up at the house a few days later. My father asked me how my detailed route worked out. I told him we got the cattle there safely, but they didn't follow my plan. "So, what did you learn from this?" he asked.

I thought about it and shook my head. He smiled. "You learned that cattle want to go to the mountains."

That lesson has stayed with me throughout my life. In general, people want the same good things, and if you give them an opportunity they'll take you to them. If you're a leader, your job is to provide ample opportunities, get people on the road, keep them safe along the way, and provide what they need to make the journey.

I thought about that this month when we asked parents, staff and the community for their vision of what our school buildings need to be to meet the future needs of students and the people of Duluth. This is the first step of many we'll use to begin to develop a long-range facilities plan. We're on a journey, and the end result won't be my plan or any one group's plan, but instead a vision that is developed by our community as a whole, that reflects the values of our community and what it's willing to support.

We know we won't get 100 percent agreement, but we do hope to build general consensus and understanding along the way. Ongoing, two-way communication is key.

Since March, we've met more than once with principals, teachers, parent leadership and our desegregation and integration advisory council. We've met with special education parents and staff, students, a cross-section of community members and representatives from our education assistants, food service and maintenance groups. We've shared information in the media, in newsletters and on our Web site.

In these discussions we're starting from scratch; what if we had no schools at all, what if we started with a blank slate? Based on the needs of students and the community, where would our schools be, what would classrooms look like, how would they incorporate technology?

So far, we've heard support for providing quality educational spaces and we've also heard people tell us to be practical. Stay away from grandiose schemes, be fiscally responsible, but do come up with something that will improve our educational spaces and serve our children well for the next 20 to 30 years.


The information we've collected, the values and hopes and dreams, is exciting to hear. And this is just the beginning of the project. Over the next several weeks, we'll meet with other groups to gather feedback on how well our buildings meet current and future educational and community needs.

With the help and expertise of Johnson Controls, we'll conduct a thorough, in-depth assessment of our buildings this summer, and then we'll go to the community again to develop a draft facilities plan. We'll share the plan, take input, and adjust until we have something our community can support.

Preliminary assessment criteria and other information about the long-range facilities project are posted on our district Web site at , scroll down to the bottom of the home page and click Upcoming Projects.

We'll schedule community meetings over the next several weeks. I hope you'll be able to take part. You can share your suggestions and ideas any time by e-mailing me or sending me a letter at Duluth Public Schools, 215 N. First Ave. E., Duluth, MN 55802. Thank you in advance for your advice and support.

Keith Dixon can be reached at or 336-8752 or for general information call 336-8735.

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