Shannon Jaax, AICP — Community Development and Public Education

Shannon Jaax, AICP

I currently serve as the Director of Planning and Real Estate for Kansas City Public Schools in Kansas City, Missouri. In my current role, I wear several hats: education planning; community-driven repurposing of surplus school assets; assessing impact of tax incentives on the school district; and charter school sponsorship/partnerships.

Early in my career, I joined the Peace Corps, where I served as a Small Business Development Volunteer in Slovakia for a rural development agency. After my Peace Corps service, I went to grad school to focus on community and economic development, as I wanted to continue working in eco-devo but stateside. The program I chose at USC happened to be in a planning program, and I developed more of an interest in planning issues. Since that time, my career has always had elements of community/economic development and planning.

Planning is such a multi-disciplinary field that we gain not only expertise in a wide range of planning areas (land use, transportation, economic development, etc.) but we also learn to evaluate complex scenarios. I believe this positions planners for critical roles in a variety of planning-related fields; it certainly has positioned me for my current role in a school district.

While most school districts have hired real estate firms to market their surplus properties, most have not found success in this approach, especially when many of the sites are in neighborhoods with very little market activity.

I pitched a nontraditional, community-driven approach (informed by my planning experience) and was hired to develop and manage the program as the Director of the Repurposing Initiative. During my time at the school district, I saw a need/opportunity to conduct more extensive planning to guide our future decision making. After several years of leading planning initiatives, my title was expanded to reflect the broader role I was serving: Director of Planning and Real Estate.

Skills

One of the things I appreciate most about my planning background is the variety of projects I’ve worked on, and as a result, the diverse set of skills I have acquired. The skills/traits that have proved the most valuable for me:

  1. project design/management
  2. ability to bring a comprehensive perspective to complex issues
  3. financial analysis
  4. ability to work with diverse groups — from community members to developers to elected officials

I never expected to be working for a school district. In my years working in community and economic development, I began to realize how public education and economic development are intrinsically linked. Not only does a solid education provide the foundation for college/career, but it also influences where families want to live, often separating the haves from the have-nots. Yet planners are rarely working directly with local schools districts. When I saw an opportunity to utilize my planning skills and work for my local school district, I jumped at it.

In planning school, I wish that I had taken urban design classes. So much of planning is about storytelling, and design is a critical component that makes us better storytellers.

Early in my planning career, I wish I had done some consulting work so that I could have gained experience/exposure to how different communities are tackling planning issues.

As a planner, I bring a unique perspective and skill set to an urban school district. In my current role, I believe that I am positioned to improve public education in my community.

Advice

Find what you are passionate about.

Planning work is difficult and trying, and sometimes it feels as though you are fighting a losing battle. But if it’s something you’re passionate about it, you’ll want to come back to it day in day out to find solutions and strategies that will address today’s planning challenges.

Don’t be afraid to forge your own path. I’m in my current role because I pitched a planning approach to a challenge at the school district (what to do with 30 closed school sites). What was initially designed as a short-term contract, has turned into a critical long-term role for the school district.

Schools and Education

Master of Planning, Concentration: Community & Economic Development, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 2001

BSBA, International Business & Finance, American University, Washington, D.C., 1996

First planning job

Program manager, Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative (LANI). LANI was established after the 1992 LA riots as a means to support impacted communities with capacity building and to give them a voice in how local/federal funding would be invested back into their neighborhoods.

What do you do outside of work that helps you be successful?

I have been involved in APA leadership at the local, statewide, and national levels.

Through APA, I’ve gained a tremendous network of planners to whom I regularly contact for insight and guidance.

Currently, I’m proud to be a co-chair of the APA Public Schools Interest Group, where we are working to create stronger linkages between public school districts and local planning agencies. For more information: https://www.apapublicschools.org/.

Locally, I participated in the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Program. It was an incredibly valuable opportunity to build relationships with people who work in a diverse set of industries, most of whom I would never have met in my professional or personal life. I regularly reach out to individuals in this group for advise/support, and I would recommend that planners look for similar opportunities in their communities.

Influences

My former boss, Joyce Perkins, co-founder of Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative (LANI). She hired me for my first planning job, which was a unique opportunity to develop skills in community capacity building and project management from concept through design and construction. While Joyce wasn’t a planner by profession, I learned many intangibles by watching her in action. She was just as comfortable and effective with elected officials as she was working with local community members. She also gave me one of the best pieces of professional advice I’ve received, “Never burn bridges.” You never know when you might need someone’s help in the future, or vice versa.

Mitch Silver, FAICP, was APA president when I was just starting to get involved in local APA leadership. He is such a strong voice for the planning profession, inspiring me to be more vocal on local planning issues and to become more active in APA.