Complicated and critical – school budgets often create significant communication challenges across the nation. Taxpayers and residents everywhere are demanding greater accountability. Explaining a multi-million dollar budget, highly regulated by state and federal mandates, calls for multiple messages, using multiple media and delivered through as many venues as possible.
There’s no “once and done” method for budget communications. Each audience has a specific need-to-know. The Hopkins (Minn.) School Board, now on track toward restoring a positive fund balance, learned a lot along the way about communicating with its community. Eileen Harvala, APR, director of public relations, said the Board set the tone for all budget communications by adopting a “Three Rs” plan, focused on restoring the district’s financial stability, renewing trust, and refocusing the district on the education of its students. They publicly announced the plan, constantly demonstrated how they were implementing the plan, and reinforced how their key decision-making reflected their commitment to the plan. “Our top priority,” says Harvala, “is to be open, honest and direct with the community.”
Many audiences comprise a district’s community, each with a unique need to know: parents and staff; non-parents; legislators; real estate agents; parents of pre-schoolers; and empty-nesters.
Gerri Allen, supervisor of communications services for Washtenaw Intermediate School District in Ann Arbor, Mich., advocates creating targeted messages, delivered using a team approach. Allen works with the superintendent, business manager and Board president to develop a clear and concise presentation, which they co-present. It’s easy to create a PowerPoint and then tailor it to the interest areas of each audience. Plus, the presentation can be printed as handouts and posted to the web site. Allen says the personal contact afforded in these presentations allows for open dialogue, which builds trust and understanding. Staff is updated regularly. “We communicate via all-staff meetings, building, department and Board meetings,” adds Allen. “We also use voice mail, e-mail, the web site, and the electronic staff newsletter between meetings to keep staff abreast of new or changing issues that impact the budget.”
In the Salem-Keizer Public Schools in Salem, Ore., Simona Boucek, special projects facilitator, adapts the annual Budget Guide to a PowerPoint and trains principals on how to present the information. A tip sheet on political activity guidelines for employees is posted on the web site.
Janelle Albertson, APR, chief communications officer for Adams 12 Five Star School District in Thornton, Colo., says they get positive feedback from posting individual school budgets that outline the specific goals and spending priorities for that school.
Translating numbers into programs and then connecting programs with real people – students and staff – is a proven method for increasing public awareness. Reduce “millions” to numbers people can deal with – such as comparing the cost of books per student with the cost for cable TV for a year.
Get Started – Right Now!
– Build a year-round communications plan using every available tool. Include face-to-face meetings, open forums, print newsletters, newspaper columns, op-ed pieces, and electronic communications (web sites, e-mail, voicemail, cable TV). If it makes sense, offer to go on local radio talk shows.
– Consider adding a “Did You Know?” or “Just the Facts” link to your web site to specifically address budget issues. Post only clear, factual information.
– Seek and respond to question and feedback from taxpayers. Don’t wait to be invited. Call and offer to present the budget program. Include time for Q & A and provide feedback cards with a contact e-mail, phone number and web site.
– Select a budget spokesperson or team. Choose the most credible spokespersons and ensure they are prepared to speak from the heart as well as the head.
– Respond swiftly to correct misinformation. Correct any misinformation reported in the media before it is repeated in subsequent articles. Enlist your Key Communicators or PTO to squelch rumors.
– Explore local cable TV options. If your district is capable of producing good quality programs, consider a short series explaining the budget, the process and the benefits to students and the community. Make it engaging and brief.
– Judi Boren
Five Point Communications
Cranberry Township, Pa.