There are about 16,000 school districts in America and 180 of them are in Georgia. That translates into over 1.5 million students in our state enrolled in public schools. Because education touches so many lives in so many ways, a school board member’s communication responsibilities are many and they are complex.
There are numerous reasons why citizens see themselves as having a stake in our public schools – as someone who believes in public education as an institution; a parent; an educator; an employee; a taxpayer; a policymaker; a student; a business leader and the list could continue. As the elected officials charged with the constitutional authority to “manage and control” our state’s public school districts, school board members have an obligation to communicate what they are doing to the citizens in the communities they serve. After all, public schools belong to the public.
Effective communication, media relations, advocacy, crisis communications and planning, community relations, public engagement, outreach—school board members must plan for and engage in these activities if they are to reach a level of excellence in governance.
It is no longer acceptable to think that because you have mailed a newsletter, held a meeting or conducted a public forum, that you have communicated. With today’s technology, people expect to get information in many ways that are convenient and meaningful to them. That means using available resources for communication: small group discussion, board meetings, web sites, printed communications, hand written notes, targeted e-mail, just to name a few.
And, don’t forget working with the news media. Building relationships with editorial boards and news organizations is time consuming, but well worth the effort for school districts.
Communication lines need to be open and relationships need to be built with the school district staff, the community, parents, legislators, county and city governments, community groups and more so that there is mutual trust and opportunities for information to be exchanged, not just handed out. Boards must make it a priority to lead by example with a culture of transparency and openness. Information that is appropriate to share should be readily available.
By having a communications plan, a school district and board can promote better public understanding and accountability. Proper planning can help dissolve misconceptions and encourage the community to trust and support its schools.
Communications and relationship-building efforts should be formalized for the following reasons:
- To demonstrate accountability.
- To meet the information needs of all segments of the community and the school system.
- To fulfill the advocacy responsibility that all school board members bear.
- To fulfill all legal and moral responsibilities as set forth in law and/or for the benefit of the school district.
What Does Accountability Have to Do With It?
Among all of the many definitions of accountability, holding the public trust belongs at the top of the list. In order to hold the public trust, a board must continually work to communicate clearly, find ways to truly engage people in dialogue and action within the school district, and demonstrate a willingness to operate with openness and transparency.
Public engagement means more than forums or other events that only allow for one-way or limited communication. There are communication models, such as study circles, that use true dialogue and problem solving to bring the community and the school system together.
There are numerous ways to demonstrate openness and transparency. Here are a few:
- Be clear on all laws pertaining to Open Meetings and Open Records. If it’s not public information be able to explain why, but don’t make people jump through hoops to obtain information that is clearly public.
- Use board meetings as a demonstration of accountability. Here are some ways that may help:
- Have a sign up sheet for speakers before the official meeting begins. Limit their time for comments if need be and be sure to explain how the listening sessions will work and what happens to the information the public provides to the board during these sessions.
- Provide information on each board member in a brochure.
- Consider moving to an online agenda system that allows the media and the community to understand what is on the agenda before the meeting begins.
- Have copies of a summary agenda available for the audience.
- Provide background information on action items for the media.
- Use a consent agenda to focus attention on information items and action items.
- Regularly report on progress made toward goals.
- Have a district staff person write a summary report of what occurred at the board meeting within a day of the meeting. This summary should be distributed to board members (to use as talking points with the media) and to employees (to displace rumor with facts.)
- Post the school district’s policy manual online so that it is accessible to employees and the community. Also, be sure that the manual is kept up-to-date and current with state law and state board rules and regulations. The Georgia School Boards Association offers a service called ePolicy that helps systems with this task.
Meeting the Information Needs of Both the Community and the School System
There are two general kinds of communication environments that school board members find themselves in as educational leaders: one as an individual elected official and another as a member of the board of education.
As an elected official, a board member will receive many phone calls at home, requests for general information and possible requests for “inside” information about the school system. School board members might be asked to make comments to the media as an elected official about public education or about actions of the board. A board member might also represent his or her district at a school or community function.
Even when out and about as a lone elected official, your comments and behavior will directly reflect on the school system and the school board. While an elected official certainly has the authority and responsibility to communicate with constituents, doing so in a way that is respectful of board policies, chain of command and roles and responsibilities is essential to maintain the credibility in the school system. Unethical behavior on the part of a board member or a superintendent leads to fragmentation, loss of trust in the school system and loss of goodwill toward public education as an institution.
For handling media relations, there should be a designated spokesperson so that everyone on the board knows who will be handling media inquiries for the board as a whole. This may or may not be a staff public relations person depending on the situation.
Planning ways for the community to communicate with the board is important. A policy on communications or public relations is one way to give thought to how the board will invite input at board meetings, or build relationships with the news media, or what the philosophy of the board is toward sharing information and communication with the community and staff. This policy can offer a framework for a board member as an elected official or as a member of the board. There are numerous sample policies available for review at www.gsba.com.
Legal and Moral Responsibilities to Communicate
Board members and superintendents need to be well versed in all laws pertaining to open meetings, open records, and any policies regarding meetings or communications. Be sure to check with legal counsel on current statutes that might be in force regarding accountability measures and communication. For example, if your board is entering a bond or SPLOST campaign, there are specific laws regarding what school system personnel can and can not do to communicate information about bond referenda or SPLOST campaigns. Even though the school board has put together a list of proposed SPLOST projects and voted to call a referendum on the SPLOST, public funds may not be used to suggest how citizens ought to vote on the referendum. There are many other such restrictions on board member participation in bond issue and SPLOST campaigns. Talk with your legal advisor about the finer points of state law in this regard.
As a “moral obligation,” the board and superintendent can avoid many communication missteps by working together as a leadership team. It is when the team concept is broken and the roles and responsibilities are blurred between the board members and the superintendent that problems often come up. Always being mindful of roles and responsibilities keeps lines of communication open and respectful.
How to be an Advocate for Public Education
Decisions made by the Georgia General Assembly greatly impact local school districts. It is critical that school board members become active advocates for public education. This includes building relationships with many branches of government. Not only should school board members know their state legislators, they should also know and build relationships with the county commissioners, city council members, government administrators and others involved who could have an impact on the public schools.
Why is it so Important for School Board Members to be Active Advocates?
- School board members know and understand what is necessary to provide a quality education.
- School board members are in the best position to articulate the difficulties of balancing local budgets.
- Legislators and local officials must hear the voices of school board members speaking about the best interest of students.
- Legislators and local officials must hear about the impact of proposed education related legislation on local school systems from school board members, especially if the legislation was developed without the benefit of input from boards of education as to its value or effect.
The following are two of the most effective ways to influence legislators:
- Constituent contact. This is most effective in personal conferences, but letters and phone calls also are effective.
- News media coverage, including opinion editorials and letters to the editor.
Board members can make a tremendous difference. Board members possess the knowledge of needs and what works, and as elected officials they operate from a powerful base.
Six Communication Dos and Don’ts for Board Member Advocacy
- Identify yourself. Make sure the legislator understands who you are and which school district you represent.
- Be brief. Get to the point quickly, and be specific.
- Use a local angle. Explaining how a bill will positively or negatively affect the local school district can be very persuasive. Remember that you’re not only the legislator’s constituent, you’re also a fellow elected official.
- Thank legislators for meeting with you and for their support or consideration, even if they are against you. You many need their vote in the future on another matter.
- Choose battles wisely. Decide from the start if an issue is important enough to risk ruining a personal relationship with a legislator or whether you would rather keep the relationship long-term and let the issue go.
- Establish a reputation for reliability and credibility.
Don’t Do These:
- Don’t be rude. Threats, rudeness, or other inappropriate behavior will not help your cause.
- Don’t distort the facts. Present your position honestly and thoughtfully. If you don’t know the answer to a legislator’s question, say so. Then find the information and call back as soon as possible.
- Don’t assume the legislator or staff member has read or remembers something you sent. Lawmakers and their staffs are inundated with volumes of information. So, if you have something you want read, make it brief. It’s also a good idea to give copies to the legislator’s aide, who will probably be the one who reviews the submission.
- Don’t break a promise. If you tell the legislator you will get information or that you will do something in exchange for support, follow through.
- Don’t give inaccurate information.
- Don’t cut anyone off from contact. Don’t let a legislator consider you an enemy because you disagree. Today's adversary could be tomorrow’s ally.
For more tips on effective advocacy, look under the publications area on GSBA’s website (www.gsba.com) for the brochure, “Building Relationships with Legislators.” Also, during the Georgia General Assembly, GSBA’s Capitol Watch Online reports on all of the action on legislation affecting our state’s public schools.
How a Bill Becomes a Law
The Georgia General Assembly consists of two houses: the House of Representatives and the Senate. First, someone must author and sponsor a bill in their respective legislative house. Appropriations bills (the budget), however, must originate in the House of Representatives.
The next step in the process is to have the bill read to the entire house during the session, then assigned by the presiding officer of that house to a committee, such as the House Education Committee or the Senate Finance Committee. (The Speaker of the House is the presiding officer of the House of Representatives and the Lt. Governor presides over the Senate.)
The committee then considers the bill. If the bill is controversial, a hearing might be held. The committee may make amendments to the bill and finally recommends that the bill receive a “do pass” or a “do not pass” vote. With a “do pass” vote, the bill is read again with any amendments that may have been attached. It is then debated on the floor of the house from which it originated. After debate and any other amendments are added, the bill is voted on.
If the bill passes, it goes to the other house where it is read again and assigned to a committee of that house. That committee votes on the bill and if it passes in committee the bill goes before the full house and is voted on again. If the version passed by the second house is identical to the version passed by the first house, the bill then goes to the governor for his signature.
If the version passed by the second house is not identical to the one passed by the first house, the bill goes to a conference committee, comprised of members of both houses for a compromise version of the bill. This version of the bill must be approved by both houses.
If the governor signs the bill it becomes law on the date specified in the bill or on July 1. The governor has 40 days to sign or veto a bill. If he fails to take action within the prescribed time, the bill becomes law. If he vetoes the bill, the General Assembly may override the veto by a two-thirds vote of each House at the next session.