Six Lessons from a Facilities Master Planning Process “On Steroids”: Part One

By Charlie Jahnigen, AIA, LEED AP

This is the first post in a two-part series based on SHP’s facilities master planning process with Sycamore Community Schools. Click here to access a PDF of SHP’s presentation of the process at the 2019 EDSpaces conference.


Over the past several years, SHP had the privilege of assisting Sycamore Community Schools—a 5,600-student district in suburban Cincinnati—with its facility master planning process. I refer to Sycamore’s journey as being “on steroids” because of the depth and breadth of its efforts. They devoted several years to the process and involved hundreds of people. The momentous efforts paid off in a big way in the fall of 2019: their $127 million levy passed with 62% of the community supporting the vote.

While the Sycamore facilities master planning process was considerably more robust than many school districts may believe they need, the key elements of its success weren’t a matter of scale. As such, I believe, what propelled their super-sized effort to victory would benefit any school district of any size wanting to create a plan that the community rallies behind.

There are six key factors to Sycamore’s success. Let’s explore the first three.

Enthusiastic Support from the Top Inspires Grassroots Participation

Sycamore’s superintendent, Frank Forsthoefel, along with the entire school board he reports to and the administrative team he leads, were fully committed to the process from start to finish. They didn’t view it as an unwanted or inconvenient distraction from more important matters. Nor did they allow the myriad of other responsibilities and concerns they faced on a daily basis to interfere with meaningful forward progress.

Effective facilities master planning requires a sustained effort over months, even years, in cases like Sycamore’s. If the process is not embraced as a priority by senior district leadership as something worthy of time and attention, then why would others? Active participation from district leadership is the surest way to get the community enthusiastically involved. After all, the process not only deserves it but requires it.

A Diversity of Input Leads to a Strong Single Solution

Facilities master planning is, inherently, multi-layered. As such, you want the committee responsible for shaping and guiding the process to include people who bring relevant but different points of view to the table. The Sycamore steering team, for instance, included Superintendent Forsthoefel as well as the district’s chief financial officer, public information officer and facility manager. SHP’s team also included myself, an architect, and two of my colleagues: senior designer Greg Lewis and public engagement specialist Fil Anastasio.

Beyond a diverse leadership team, the process necessitates involving many people beyond board members, administrators and an architectural firm. This includes teachers, staff, parents and students, yes, but also local business owners, adults with no kids in the district, civic leaders and representatives from various community organizations. One of the groups that Sycamore solicited input from was local real estate agents. Not many people are more familiar with the impact of great schools on a local economy quite like realtors¾and who, as a result, are often vocal advocates of school funding campaigns.

Let the Experts Be Experts

Each person on the Sycamore facilities master planning steering team brought a unique set of skills and talents to the table. This team worked exceedingly well together, in part because we’re all nice people. But it’s also because we each respected one another’s area of expertise. This allowed for more confident decision-making.

To be clear: no one person was beyond question or challenge. The point is that we acknowledged and took advantage of the hard-won know-how in the group in order to move the project forward smartly and efficiently.

Speaking of experts, one phase of the Sycamore process involved Educational Visioning, a proprietary SHP service that helps people envision the future of education and what it may mean for their community’s schools. Rather than just have people guess at what the future of teaching and learning is likely to hold based on something they saw in a sci-fi movie, we shared expert opinions from futurists and researchers. We brought in several guest speakers and shared thought-provoking published content. This provided participants with informed ideas and fact-based insights upon which to hang their visions of the future.

I invite you to check out the next three lessons learned from Sycamore Community Schools. In the meantime, please contact us if your district could use an experienced partner to help you navigate the facilities master planning process within your school district.