Engage Your Stakeholders when Important Budget Decisions Must Be Made

Brett Clark
Brett Clark

It is nearly impossible to read a newspaper, search the Internet or watch TV news without hearing about the budget challenges facing school systems.

As local, state and federal funds are dwindling, expenditures are on the rise — our major resource (people) must be fairly compensated, aging facilities have to be repaired, and teachers need professional development to increase their effectiveness and raise student achievement.

Tap Community Expertise

To help solve this budget mismatch, many districts are engaging their communities to gather ideas and opinions to help school leaders shape financial decisions. This approach has distinct advantages over the traditional approach of the superintendent or the administrative team developing a budget-cutting plan and asking for the board’s approval.

One of the compelling reasons to engage the community is the ability to tap parents’ and citizens’ expertise. Not only does engagement enable district leaders to make more informed decisions, constituents’ involvement typically increases community support. There is no monopoly on good ideas. In fact, sometimes, as administrators, we are too close to the challenges and unable to see the proverbial forest for the trees. Additionally, parents and community members bring a different perspective from educators, which can lead to solutions that never would have surfaced otherwise.

Increase Support and Credibility

Melea Smith, APR, director of communications and public relations for Elmhurst (Ill.) Community Unit School District 205, can attest to the value of engagement when making decisions about budget cuts. “Although there was lively discussion during the four major community engagement sessions,” Smith says, “when it came time for the board vote to be taken, the meeting lasted less than an hour, and not one person signed up to make a public comment.” Smith also noted that people didn’t agree with every decision, but she added that, “they knew we had done the best job we could to maintain quality education, and keep our commitment to fiduciary responsibility.”

Principals in the Public
Principals in the Public
The research is clear — public engagement is a must for all successful school leaders. Developed by NSPRA Executive Director Richard D. Bagin, APR, Principals in the Public is an easy-to-use guide that will enable principals to become skilled communicators as well as community leaders.

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An additional benefit of community engagement is a better-informed constituency. By participating in the process, stakeholders gain a deeper understanding of the challenges facing the district, as well as other issues. This investment in transparency builds relationships that are crucial to developing trust.

For the last several years, leaders of Carroll ISD in Grapevine, Texas, have been involving the community in addressing their budget challenges. Executive Director of Communications and Marketing, Julie Thannum, APR, stresses the need for clarity and transparency. “School finances are very complex, and this makes our jobs extremely difficult. We have to be transparent, and we have to help our taxpayers understand the real story behind school finance.” She also notes that, “Opening the books and showing exactly where the expenditures are going builds credibility.”

Be Sure Everyone Is ‘On the Same Page’

While there are many advantages to this approach, community engagement is not the right solution for all decisions or all districts.

One of the most important questions a superintendent and communication professional must determine before implementing a community engagement process involves the Board of Education. Is the full board supportive of the process? Will they accept the recommendations from the process as long as it meets the parameters of the charge outlined for the group? If the answer to either of these questions is “no,” engaging the community could do more harm than good.

Many times board members are concerned with “giving up” decision-making authority. Everyone must be on the same page for this venture to succeed. Irene Payne, chief communications and community engagement officer for Washoe County School District in Reno, Nev., said that they could not have made the cuts they did without the development of an integrated communication campaign.

“You have to have everyone saying the same thing,” Payne notes. “This means the community hearing the same messages from board members, administrators and staff. Then, of course, there has to be a call to action, and if you ask them to do something, there is a very good chance they will.”

Invest Time ‘Up Front’

A word of warning — community engagement takes more time on the front end. Setting up and holding meetings with stakeholders is time-consuming. Also requiring a commitment of time are the editorial tasks — to make data and information understandable to parents and community members.

However, a decision made without stakeholder buy-in can lead to more hours of time working through the criticisms from the community and negative public comments at board meetings. Additionally, the community trust that is lost in these situations is difficult to gain back.

Learn More about Successful Processes

Recently, NSPRA hosted a PR Power Hour on this topic, where each of the communication professionals cited in this article shared the processes they used to engage the community in budget decisions. While they took different approaches to reach their answers, overwhelmingly, they said that the process led to better decisions and greater community support. My district, Glenview School District 34, also conducted a strategic budgeting process recently. To learn more details of the exact steps taken to engage stakeholders, you can visit these websites:

Educate Stakeholders and Build Trust

We can’t control the budget challenges we will face as we work to ensure student success. What we can control is how we go about solving those challenges. By engaging their communities, district leaders will find better solutions, educate stakeholders in the process and build relationships that lead to trust.

 

Brett Clark is executive director of communications and strategic planning for Glenview (Ill.) School District 34 and NSPRA North Central Region Vice President. He can be contacted at: bclark@glenview34.org.