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Chapter 8

Community Connections


 

8:1 With whom in the community should the board connect?

Community members are both the district’s “owners” and its clients. They pay for the district’s products and services and incorporate its graduates. Keep in mind that people support what they help create. If the district’s stakeholders don’t help to create the district’s vision, goals, standards, strategic plans, policies, budgets, etc., they may feel no ownership of them.

Although your board may not be able to engage every single group and community member, you should identify and engage key internal and external stakeholders. These individuals and groups can help or hinder the district in achieving its vision and goals. Key internal stakeholders may include students, faculty, staff, administrators, volunteers, PTA/PTO, etc. Key external stakeholders may include parents, taxpayers, unions, public officials, community leaders of business, civic, social and religious organizations, and representatives of higher education, health, social and youth services organizations.

8:2 How should the board engage the community?

Be proactive. Engage key stakeholders by inviting and appointing them to participate in standing and ad hoc committees, advisory panels, focus groups, forums and surveys to describe a vision for the district, set its goals, plan strategically, align resources with goals, and other actions offering them an opportunity to learn about public education and to influence governance decisions.

Use a variety of means to engage community members, inform them about the district, and learn about their interests, priorities and concerns. Print and electronic media, social media (be mindful of emerging trends for younger parents), the district’s website and face-to-face conversations all play important roles in a year-round district campaign to inform and to be informed.

While accentuating the positive — student successes and district progress — don’t neglect the negative. Be the first to let your community know about clouds looming on the horizon, and what you’re doing to dispel them. Board members and the superintendent can be effective ambassadors for the district, especially by scheduling dialogues with a cross section of your community — preferably in their neighborhoods as well as in online forums. And be prepared to address negative comments and feedback in a positive, proactive manner.

Part of your community engagement strategy should also encourage all members of the community to visit their schools. Invite them to extracurricular activities, schedule grandparents’ day, offer tours and briefings. In public education, familiarity often breeds support.

In addition, be mindful of your district’s brand and its customer service. The expectations of parents and community members are changing. The parents of your seniors may have far different expectations than the parents of your kindergartners.

All these actions and more should be in your district’s community engagement policy.

8:3 How do you bridge a gap between community and board?

Most gaps result from poor communication. Remember that communication is a team sport — both parties must have the opportunity to speak and both must actively listen. You should review your school board policy on community engagement. If none exists, develop one.

Check whether your policy provides a variety of methods for informing the community about the district. Does it use varied means of communication — print media (such as newsletters and board member or superintendent articles in local newspapers), a user-friendly website, multiple social media (Facebook and Instagram, for instance, to target different demographics) and oral delivery (such as board or superintendent talks with community organizations)? Does it provide various means for the public to inform the board and administration about its interests, priorities and concerns? Such means include opportunities for participation in district committees and advisory panels, focus groups, polling, social media and other online forums.

Does the policy seek to involve all elements of the community in district activities — e.g., encouraging volunteers, scheduling tours and briefings, inviting them to extracurricular events and special occasions? WASB’s Policy Services can help with policy updates.

Transparency is key. If your district operates separately from the community, gaps will remain. When you bring the community into their schools, and when you bring school information into the community, knowledge and trust will improve as the community senses that “your” schools are “their” schools — and that their schools are in your good hands.

8:4 How can I make sure I represent community sentiment?

No community is a single, uniform entity. Every community is comprised of various subgroups, such as parents and senior citizens and they want to engage in different ways. So, to represent your community, your first task is to identify the groups and subgroups that together compose your community, and learn about best practices for engaging them. It’s helpful to have a demographic and socioeconomic profile of community members served by your district. With it, you can check whether you really are aware of all community members, and whether your data and analysis truly reflect the total community.

Although individual board members may not be able to speak with everyone in your community about all issues, the board as a whole should be able to acquire valid input from a sound cross section of community members. Varied approaches can be used. One is to include the public in committees, panels and forums as mentioned above. Some boards find it useful to rotate their meetings among various locations in the community. A telephone hotline number, dedicated email address or social media tool where citizens can leave comments and questions can also sometimes be helpful as long as the district consistently monitors the input that it receives and is reasonably comfortable navigating the records management or other possible challenges that might arise. Of course, all board members should make opportunities to converse with people throughout the community about district education. Listening is key.

8:5 How does one encourage school board service?

Promoting school board service as a meaningful way to contribute to your community is an ongoing responsibility of school board members. Your actions, teamwork and enthusiasm for board service will influence people in your community to consider serving on your school board.

Attracting qualified and energetic candidates results from activities taking place year-round, not just at election time. By increasing community participation within the schools, you can identify community members who might be willing to consider school board service. Invite individuals to join ad hoc committees, to volunteer in the classroom, or simply to attend various events at school to strengthen their involvement. In this way, potential candidates can become more aware of the challenges facing your schools and the successes you have enjoyed.

See the Guide for Candidates brochure. The WASB designed this pamphlet to provide a quick overview of school board service aimed at potential school board candidates.

8:6 How can boards increase public participation and support at meetings?

The first way to encourage public participation at meetings is to review how you treat the public when they come to your board meetings. A pleasant environment, a few social amenities and a procedure by which the public can address the board not only contributes to good decision-making, it fosters good public attitudes about those decisions. The cardinal rule in building support for public education is to invite input and treat the public with respect. District policies and procedures should make people feel that they are a welcome part of the board meeting and resulting decisions.

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