Little: Scottsdale is a great place to live, work, play and …

Let me get right to the point. I propose we add an “education” element to the city’s General Plan and here’s why.

John Little

First of all it benefits children by describing the community we want to leave for them and their children.

Second, it recognizes education and learning as the bedrock for a strong community.

Third, it re-builds a critical bond between our schools and our city, and lastly, it has never been done before to my knowledge in any city in Arizona.

In my research I have discovered an education element in the General Plan of the city of Plano, Texas, and without getting too effusive, it is an outstanding example of what ours could be. Of course we are Scottsdale and we aspire to even greater heights.

A beneficial by-product of pursuing this idea is that it may allow everyone embroiled in two of our city’s most controversial issues to pause and consider how we might seek a higher ground on which to discuss the future of Scottsdale and the future of a community that values our children as much as we value open space, infrastructure, economic development and public safety.

A “great place to live, work and play” is a quality of life mantra repeated by countless communities across America. It is marketing shorthand for “our town offers something of interest for everyone.”

Unfortunately with literally hundreds of communities chanting the same message its once creative intent becomes a tired predictable platitude.

Inarguably, Scottsdale has always been a great place to live, work and play, but self-satisfaction and complacency has always been our Achilles heel. Today, we have an opportunity to once again restore the excitement and energy that not too long ago saw bus-loads of visitors from other towns across America coming to Scottsdale to see how we created our unique quality of life.

By most any measure Scottsdale has remained a special place in spite of episodic Hatfield and McCoy spats and controversies. We were blessed with climate, industrious pioneers, a creative spirit, an appreciation for art and aesthetics, generosity and wealth. More importantly, we were endowed with a spirit of helping one another.

We’ve tried hard to make sure all voices of people were heard and we were meeting the needs of our citizens. People not living in flood plains voted to fund flood control projects. People without kids voted to support school bond programs and people who had never visited a library or park or rode a bus supported those who did.

The result was a community which felt united in our most important core values. Today I am concerned that we are in the twilight of our once common dreams.

Fifteen years ago ASU’s Morrison Institute issued “Which Way Scottsdale?” a much discussed and debated assessment of Scottsdale’s future opportunities and “red flag issues” that left unattended, might well become our greatest vulnerabilities. While the report’s conclusions have for the most part been forgotten, it might be worth revisiting a particularly pointed section of the report captioned “Can Scottsdale Avoid Becoming Splitsdale?”

The report’s authors prophetically noted, “Pulling together around education benefits the whole as well. Each part of the city faces its own education challenges…. But to continue its quality of life cachet — and continue the flow of executives and leading industries to the area — Scottsdale must increasingly benchmark its schools against the best in the country.”

I do not believe it was an accident tying the discussion of a divided community with support for educational excellence and I suggest it was more than just commentary. It was intended as a warning. Fix your schools or risk your city and conversely, unite your community or risk your Schools.

How many of us 15 long years later can proudly say we have responded to this red flag issue and claim even modest success?

Our largest school district is struggling to regain its feet, as well as its trust. Our community college is woefully underfunded and our city is trying to make key policy decisions using a General Plan that was last updated nearly two decades ago.

Efforts to revise it to reflect today’s environment and tomorrow’s challenges have been abysmal failures.

So, no surprise we now find ourselves flailing about in the middle of the very pit of quicksand the Morrison report warned us about. I believe there is a way out but it requires us to think and behave differently. Like many of you, I am convinced opportunity is found in the center of chaos and success is achieved on the edges of possibility and new ideas.

It can be scary on the edge but Scottsdale at one time was the community that defined the edge, we lived on the edge and we thrived.

Scottsdale continues to mature as a community but we desperately need to recapture the spirit of Peter Pan. Scottsdale should never want to finish growing up. Scottsdale should channel its inner teenager, curious about possibilities, resilient following failure, courageous to try new approaches and perhaps even a little impertinent when told “that’ll never work here.” Of course there will be the familiar chorus of those that revel in the feud, energized and empowered by conflict and confrontation.

Scottsdale is a place owned by none of us but dependent on all of us. We each have our little piece but must resist the urge to have all 240,000 of us sounding like Walt Kowalski in Grand Torino, warning people to “get off of my lawn!”

Let’s put forth our best individual and collective efforts to stop polarizing issues and begin our conversations grounded in community interest rather than self-interest. Let’s explore new ways to talk to each other, to spend more time listening and understanding and less time shouting and defending.

It is for these reasons that we should re-open the stalled General Plan update process and jump-start it with the goal of including a new GP element, “Education,” or “Community Learning.” Can we agree that providing benchmark schools and safe learning environments for kids and lifelong learning opportunities for adults is good?

Let’s begin a positive new dialog on behalf of our children. If the General Plan is an expression of our aspirations for the future of our community, how can it be a complete vision without an element describing our hopes and dreams for the safety, well-being and education of our children?

For decades we have talked about the importance of quality education to our economic development program. But we have done little to advance this symbiotic relationship. Our partnership at SkySong with ASU has yielded positive results for the McDowell Road corridor and the Charro Coronado school initiative is bearing fruit.

While these efforts are laudable we need to be able to think and act on a larger scale. We have strategic vulnerabilities that left unaddressed pose serious and lasting threats to our community.

For example we are one of the fastest aging communities in Arizona. Our median age is nearly 10 years older that Phoenix, Mesa, Tempe, Chandler and Gilbert. With fewer new families in the south and an increasingly older retired demographic in the north, “Splitsdale” could become a reality in which we find it increasingly more difficult to deal with aging infrastructure and school funding.

A community that does not support and re-invest in schools and infrastructure will see property values begin a downward spiral. That is a trajectory we cannot accept. High performing schools are only possible in high performing communities. If we cannot figuratively and literally join hands to use the General Plan to strengthen our collective commitment to good schools, everything we have worked for will be placed at risk. Struggling schools in a city with an 18-year-old General Plan is a recipe for failure.

Let’s take a mulligan. Let’s create new conversations, new working groups.

Let’s work hard to bring a new chorus of voices to the choir. Let’s actively search out people who haven’t been active in community life and include them in planning efforts. Let’s see if we can find the right mix of ideas and create the right kind of environment to bring younger people to the table. And while we are at it….let’s redefine the table.

We can and must explore new methodologies of civic engagement. People will show up if they can participate in meaningful ways, if we can insure their voices are heard and if we practice truth and transparency in all our interactions.

As Martin Luther King said, “Many people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion. The tendency of most is to adopt a view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody.”

I might add…and so absent imagination and risk, it produces nothing. I hope you share this vision for the future of Scottsdale: A great place to live, work, play and…. learn.

To read the groundbreaking General Plan Education Element crafted by the citizens of Plano, Texas follow this link:

Editor’s Note: John Little, co-founder of Social Prosperity Partners, LLC is a former Scottsdale City Manager, Grande member of the Scottsdale Charros, and worked for the city for 24 years. He and his wife Lori reside in Scottsdale Mountain.

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