Since 2011, Elizabeth English, with support of the Board of Trustees, has been promoting to donors, parents and students the benefits of an ambitious $70 million five-year campus expansion plan. (West Side Today, 12/9/15 http://westsidetoday.com/2014/12/09/l-planning-commission-holds-first-four-public-hearings-archer-school-girls-expansion/).
The Archer expansion project has been a central objective of the Board and Ms. English and there is no doubt that she has worked very hard to win raise the funds and get the necessary approvals. Nevertheless, the prospects for success are dimmer than ever and the executive and board strategies and tactics are the reason.
Dubious Strategy and Ineffective Tactics
The challenge. To successfully achieve its expansion goals, Archer leadership has to significant challenges:
1) Raising an enormous sum of money by convincing donors of the benefits of the expansion and the reasonableness of the necessary discomfort during construction without implying that the school cannot provide the educational experience parents and students expect and want from a first rate school with a tuition of more than $30,000 per year.
2) Convincing neighbors and the politicians that represent them that the expansion will enhance the community, benefit them, and that it will be achieved through carefully conceived implementation plan designed to minimize short and long-term inconvenience.
The results so far. Unfortunately, the strategies and tactics chosen reflected overconfidence of success in terms of fund-raising and acquisition of the necessary approvals. Consequently:
1) Many current and former Archer parents who selected Archer based on the promises of renovation described as “essential” and donors to the expansion fund feel alienated with emotions ranging from annoyed to outraged because they feel they were lied to, or at least misled. This current mood sharply reduces the likelihood of raising whatever funds are truly needed for the “compromise” plan Elizabeth English and the Board adopted in response to insurmountable opposition to the original plan.
2) The public relations dimension of the expansion strategy was equally counterproductive. Several parents contacted us through this website to express outrage that rather than truly collaborate and consult as Ms. English repeatedly claims, her interactions with concerned residents and businesses stressed Archer’s needs and sought to minimize the validity of their concerns rather than find meaningful solutions. They said that the school used slick (and expensive) brochures but did not engage in true give and take discours and that her “presentations” (rather than a discussion among equals) were conveyed an entitlement attitude that many residents perceived as arrogant and insensitive (one resident used the term “imperious”). As a result, rather than being mollified by the school’s compromise concessions, the plans’ opponents have become more aggressive than ever as demonstrated by an extensive document by an attorney opposing Archer compromise plan. http://www.archerneighbors.com/141208Hearing_Officer_Letter_FINAL-signed.pdf
Probable end result. Unless there is a change in leadership and strategy it is probable that Archer’s leadership will waste additional time and money in a futile efforts to make a series of successive compromises and, in the end, Ms. English and the Board will be unable to raise the funds nor acquire the approvals to support any expansion that will have a meaningful impact on the Archer experience. Recruitment of new students will be made more difficult as leadership seeks to retreat from its position that without the promised benefits of the compromised expansion plan students cannot get “A WORLD-CLASS, 21ST-CENTURY EDUCATION” and the school will be embroiled in uncomfortable negotiations with previous donors and the recrimination of parents.
Some facts to consider . Here are some additional facts to help you make your own assessment as to the wisdom and effectiveness of Archer leadership and the likelihood that any significant expansion plan will ever be approved and funded.
- Without any meaningful assurances of funding or approval, Archer invested about $3 million in architecture, legal, environmental and other fees to prepare and present. (According Archer’s Form 990 tax reports for 2012 and 2013, Archer paid architecture fees of $1.532,531 ($548.780 and $983.751) to Parallax Inc; $1,044,097 ($354.137 and $690,060) to attorneys Latham and Watkins; $158,469 to traffic consultants Fehr and Peers; and $108,172 for public relations to Sugerman Communications Group for a total of $2,843,269. These expenses were paid by July 1, 2013 and do not include amounts paid thereafter (not yet reported) including a very substantial amount to create a new plan to reflect the concessions made by the Board in October, 2014.
- Promoted the plan to the Archer community and, most significantly, to donors. was a major gamble as Ms. English was unable to obtain the support of key neighbors, the planning department or key politicians (particularly, Councilman Mike Bonin and his predecessor) before spending these large sums and she widely
- After dozens of meetings and years of discussions and hearings, on October 2, 2015 Councilman Bonin wrote a letter to Brentwood area constituents (Bonin Letter) raising 33 major objections requiring dramatic downsizing of the original plan.
- Though this was a potentially devastating blow, Barbara Bruser, and Board member, Justin Chang sent a letter to the Archer community that appeared to significantly understate (if not misrepresent) the scope of Councilman Bonin’s opposition and the extent to which his demands would gut the original plan. It also ignored the obvious cost of a comprehensive redesign with no assurance at all that even the modified plan would be approved.
- Ms. English issued a press release on November 13, 2014, Press Release announcing that she and the Board agreed to all requested modifications but she did not candidly discuss the major programmatic and financial implications of the changes agreed to. Consider the unstated implication of various portions of the press release (below):
“The compromise plan avoids all significant traffic impacts from school operations by placing strict limits on the number of cars and visitors to campus and strengthening Archer’s existing model transportation management plan by increasing mandatory bus ridership to 70%, and requiring all other students to carpool with at least three students per vehicle.”
This concession will impose huge inconveniences and logistical challenges on parents and students. A full 70% must take the bus, regardless of where they live, AND carpools must include at least 3 students! This requirement could create a major logistical barrier for parents.
“Archer has also agreed to preserve a residential lot on Barrington, achieved by eliminating the proposed Aquatics Center from the plan.”
Losing the aquatics center is itself a major change, but this comment does not mention that the “preserved” residential lot on Barrington will have to be used to build a new house for Ms. English since the home already provided her (and renovated at an additional cost of $1.4 million) will be demolished to make way for the performing arts building. The cost of building a new residence for Ms. English and temporary housing during construction could easily cost another $5 million.
The school will also reduce the scale of the Performing Arts Center by decreasing seating capacity by 40%, replace all above-ground parking by moving all spaces underground, and incorporate an underground walkway from the parking garage to the campus, reducing noise.”
This is a massive new requirement. The cost of a new underground parking area AND walkway will be enormous and raise a whole new set of environmental impact issues that will delay the project and require very substantial additional architectural and engineering fees.
- These are only a few of the 33 modifications, but they certainly are enough to prevent Archer from keeping previous promises made to donors, students and parents and, possibly, require re-negotiation with donors who were sold a very different project.
- The first of four public hearings on the modified proposal was held on December 9, 2015. According to “Westside Today” Article: “Opponents to the development were outnumbered by at least three to one at the meeting, with pro-expansion speakers dominating the day. Archer’s Head of School Elizabeth English said she was heartened by the overwhelming show of support for the school and the plan. . . . The head of school was backed by a sea of pink T-shirt wearing students and supporters, all who pushed for improvements to their school’s facilities.” Though a contingent of young girls and their parents wearing supportive T-shirts may be gratifying, it is unlikely that this will have any impact on the planning decision-makers and it most certainly did not mollify adamant opponents nor address the significant legal obstacles to even the modified proposal.
- In the press release and on Archer’s official site dedicated to the Archer expansion project (“Archer Forward”Archer Expansion) Elizabeth English declared that:“Archer has worked extremely hard for many years to work with our neighbors and the council office to create a compromise plan that delivers a 21st Century, world-class education for girls in a manner that is respectful of the Brentwood neighborhood we call home. We have listened intently, recognizing the concerns of our most proximate neighbors, and compromised in a very meaningful way.” Unfortunately, the people she should have been collaborating with feel very differently. On their website www.archerneigbors.com, residents express passionate disagreement that there was collaboration or compromise. Rather than backing off, opponents to the project have intensified their opposition. Note the aggressive and passionate tone in the most the current statement of the group called Archer Neighbors” posted at http://www.archerneighbors.com/ and http://josephsonvsarcher.com/opposition-to-the-archer-expansion-plan/
Do not be fooled.
The Archer Forward modified plan seeks enormous INCREASES that will greatly impact our community: 78% increase in the physical footprint; 130% increase in parked cars on campus; 83% increase in special events held on campus; 280% increase in athletic events held on campus; Increase in hours of operation (school every Saturday); 15% increase in enrolled students; Increase in traffic from FIVE YEARS of construction.
ARCHER HAS NOT COMPROMISED.
All of the changes Archer made to its project ALREADY EXIST in the current conditional use permit, items such as no lights on the field and no outside use of the facilities. Giving up something to which you have no right is not a compromise. In fact, Archer’s Modified plan requests INCREASES in every category and changes the way Archer operates in our neighborhood. Archer has not compromised and has not offered any concessions. It is the neighbors who have compromised and have offered concessions over the current Conditional Use Permit.
- On December 7, 2015, an attorney representing residents sent a detailed 39 page letter with legal citations arguing against the legality as well as the propriety of the modified expansion. Attorney Letter. This new opposition will doubtless delay the process and it is likely this will either result in a complete rejection of the Archer proposal or require additional modifications and associated costs and delays.
- It is widely known that even based on the more attractive and expansive plan, contributions and pledges fell far short of what is needed and expected. If fund-raising obstacles were substantial before, it may be even harder to raise funds with all the uncertainty and a greatly watered down plan.
- The Board has significant reasons to reconsider their commitment to this project and current leadership
- The next public hearing will take place in front of the City Planning Commission on Thursday, February 26, 2015.
Irony: Remember the story of the Archer mom forced to withdraw her child from Archer because she expressed concern that Ms. English was being very imprudent with Archer funds (cost for renovation of the home Archer provided her soared to about $1.4 million)? Well, under each version of the plan that home would be torn down and a new one would have to be purchased and renovated for Ms. English