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Democracy in action 

A healthy exchange of news and information engages schools and communities

Fall 2013

A healthy exchange of news and information engages schools and communities

Engaging the public in school decisions is simply good policy, whether a governance team is building support for a bond issue or parcel tax, considering school closures, or simply keeping the community informed. The need only increases in the transition to California’s new Local Control Funding Formula and Common Core State Standards and assessments.

These monumental changes are likely to raise a lot of questions and concerns in your community. It’s not a moment too soon for local educational agencies to consider how they will comply with the public input requirements of the Local Control and Accountability Plans called for in the state’s new funding formula, which dedicates resources to raising the achievement of low-income students, English learners and foster youth.

Districts that are fortunate enough to have the professional guidance of a public information officer have an advantage, but there are simple steps every district or county office of education can take to ensure a healthy public engagement program.

The first step is to recognize the need to be as deliberate and thoughtful as possible when your LEA is adopting a new spending plan, curriculum or other large-scale change that would benefit from public support. If we want the public to support the work we’re doing for students, then we have to ensure they are part of building our plan for increasing success. The tips that follow can help governance teams engage stakeholders whose support will help sell complicated programs—and whose opposition could hamper those efforts.

Engagement: Are you listening?

Unions, associations, vendors, taxpayer groups and others with “skin in the game” are often eager to ensure their voices are heard when there are resources or potential tax increases at stake. It can be more difficult to engage those who don’t usually participate in these discussions—and it may be more important to make these voices heard.

“You have to involve a broad section of the community,” advises Monika Moulin, a board member in the Yosemite Unified School District and an instructor for CSBA’s Masters in Governance training program. (See related story on page 14.) In many cases, board members begin to see an issue from a different perspective after hearing from people who are not as connected to the district.

It’s also important to approach the engagement process with an open mind.

“Seek input early and often,” advises Moulin. “Board members sometimes think that they need to think through a challenge, solve it, and present a solution, instead of asking people for help in developing the solution.”

As you plan a forum, it’s crucial to make the event easy for people to attend and participate in. For example—especially in rural areas—the best location may not be the district office. If you have families with breadwinners working more than one job, you may need to consider offering a variety of meeting times.

There are also practical family considerations. If you want as much participation and focus as possible for a complex issue, it’s a great idea to offer child care and meals, to translate all materials and to be sure to have interpreters at the meeting.

CSBA President Cindy Marks puts those strategies to work on a regular basis with her colleagues and the community in the Modesto Unified School District; like the rest of California, Modesto is a rich mixture of culture, heritage and income levels.

“We realized we needed to open up a door to allow for dialogue with the community,” Marks notes. “We decided we could bring in a group of people who were very upset with our school district and felt that they weren’t being heard, and sit down and have a discussion: How can we work together as a school district and as a community to help these students? So over the years, about 12 or 13 years now, we have been working together and bringing in speakers, good role models for all of our students.”

Think outside the boardroom

Sometimes it can help to get off campus, away from the boardroom and into the broader community. The best way to show you care is to meet with people on their own turf. Marks seeks out community meetings, for example, and she encourages fellow board members to do the same.

Jill Wynns, Marks’ predecessor as CSBA president, follows a similar philosophy. A board member with San Francisco Unified School District, Wynns recommends working with a variety of nonprofit advocacy groups and partnering with them to assist with outreach. San Francisco Unified maintains an active list of area community organizations, and when it has an issue that calls for input, the district might ask an organization to add the item to its next meeting agenda.

The district also asks groups to put together special forums and coordinates with them to promote the events. District staff deals with logistics and prepares volunteers to facilitate a productive and civil meeting.

“There’s a different level of trust when it is a meeting they put together with their public,” says Wynns. “It’s a completely different dynamic. They love it because they are showing leadership in their community.”

District representatives are on hand to speak—and to listen.

“When we go to the community, it can’t be with the attitude of, ‘We have something to say to your members,’ ” Wynns explains. “It has to be an attitude of, ‘Tell us what you think.’ ”

‘Democracy in action’

Transparency is a key component in building trust. It can be tempting for individual board members to have side conversations, particularly with people and groups who have been supportive in the past. However, the more intense an issue has become, the more important it is that all community conversations take place in the open.

“A school board is democracy in action; don’t lose sight of that,” urges Moulin, the Yosemite Unified board member and MIG instructor. “We have to do our best to model what government should be, even during difficult times.”

Even while an LEA is working hard to ensure that ordinary citizens get involved, communication with other local leaders can’t be neglected. For example, district leaders should be talking with the mayor, city council, county supervisors, and other elected officials, particularly when there is potential for heated disagreement on an issue.

Remember, knowledge is power, and political leaders who might otherwise be critical of your schools may be persuaded by a briefing (and the personal attention that involves) to help explain the obstacles your agency must address.

Two important groups that can easily be overlooked are employees and the students themselves. Because they are already on school sites, employees and students can sometimes inadvertently be left out of a communications plan. That’s a mistake.

It’s well established that, to the public, the most trusted sources of information are the people closest to the classroom. No matter what the board, superintendent or even mayor is saying, the perspective that people find most credible is their child’s own teacher. Districts should be proactive in equipping teachers and other employees with accurate information.

Students’ voices can also have an enormous impact and provide a truly unique perspective. The speed of change in the world is creating young people who are exposed to more information than any other previous generation. They are technologically savvy and socially conscious. They alone have direct experience on the learning side of the school equation. Sending staff to a brown bag lunch discussion at area high schools is an easy way to informally engage young people and find out how they feel about an issue.

It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes a highly contentious issue can be the start of a healthy, long-term community engagement program. After inviting multiple groups to participate in a community conversation about a given issue, it’s important that you demonstrate how the feedback was considered.  Collect contact information about participants at every opportunity, and then follow up with them to demonstrate how their contribution impacted the ultimate decision. It’s not always possible for a board to follow the direction of the community—if it goes against a legal mandate or the rights of a smaller group, for example—but  it’s important to acknowledge their concerns and share the district’s perspective.

‘Speak for our schools’

If you’ve collected that list of stakeholders who participated on a given issue, you now have a great directory of people who care about what is happening in the classroom. Keep the momentum going by inviting them to engage on a variety of other items—from community feedback on textbook adoptions and lunch menus, for example, to school calendars, and parent advisory groups.

If you’re doing it right, engagement becomes the way that decisions are made in your district. It takes commitment, focus, and an investment of time and talent. Districts and agencies need to periodically check their level of engagement with the community to ensure they are on track and not wait for the next crisis or campaign to invite people in.

Through community engagement, CSBA President Marks says, “we’re able to hear and understand what might help us work better on how best to meet the needs of our students, and open up our minds to different ways of thinking.” And she puts it in a broader context: “Developing effective communication skills helps board members to be better policymakers, better advocates for education—not only in the local community, but also to project a statewide voice. I believe that through becoming those local leaders and dialoguing with our communities, we’ll have a stronger sense of community, gain respect, and speak for our schools at every level.”

Trinette Marquis-Hobbs is the past president of the California School Public Relations Association and a partner with Syntric Communications in Sacramento. 

Redwood City: A tale of two campaigns

Despite being situated in a high-cost, high-wage area almost exactly halfway between San Francisco and San Jose, many Redwood City residents are far from wealthy. It takes a lot to convince the community to pay more in taxes, even for their local schools, as the Redwood City School District discovered in 2009.

In an attempt to adjust to severe state cuts and provide equitably for their students, the district placed a parcel tax measure on the ballot. It fell short of the two-thirds majority required, and so the next few years brought unavoidable increases in class sizes and reductions in library hours, teaching and staff positions and academic programs.
Realizing that the community needed a greater understanding of how its schools were funded, the district put a budget communications plan in place. It included the first annual report, regular written updates from the superintendent, parent and community group presentations by board members and district staff, and extensive, easy-to-understand budget information on the website.

Even before the next parcel tax campaign was launched, polling showed the aggregate favorable opinion of the district’s work rose 11 percent—and favorable opinion of its management of taxpayer dollars rose 13 percent.

“The community is sharing hard-earned money with us to educate the children in our community and we have a responsibility to explain how we manage the resources they provide,” explains Naomi Hunter, the district’s director of communications. “When citizens understand how money is being spent, they are more likely to support local schools.”                  

Starting with that better foundation of support and adding a strong campaign, Measure W garnered 69.2 percent voter approval in 2012—$1.5 million more than the 2009 measure would have raised. The extra funding is helping to pay for reading teachers, expanding school library hours, hands-on science activities, new library books, and iPads.
—Trinette Marquis-Hobbs