Turning Budget Shortfalls into Stronger Relationships, Credibility

The term “budget crisis” is nothing new to school communication professionals, who have often faced the daunting task of relaying bleak budget projections and cuts to parents only to then see their own positions among those potentially on the cutting block.

Leading Off

By Michael Piper,
NSPRA Communication
E-mail Michael here

But the budget projections this year, particularly when combined with the general state of the economy, have made things even more difficult than normal. California and Michigan have been among the hardest hit, but across the nation more and more districts are being forced to concede that the cuts will indeed have an impact – perhaps a significant one – in the classroom.

Teacher positions are being cut, veteran teachers are being asked to take retirement and, in California, several organizations appear likely to sue the state for what they feel is grossly inadequate education funding.

Budget pic“It’s time to get aggressive in telling your school budget story, in creating advocates and coalitions for education priorities, and building trust and confidence that your leadership knows what it is doing,” NSPRA Executive Director Rich Bagin, APR, said. “We need to be proactively transparent and engaging throughout this entire budget process, and we need to remind all taxpayers that once schools begin declining, the phrase, ‘there goes the neighborhood,’ is not far behind.” (See the NSPRA Counselor here for more on this topic of what to do.)

While this likely means even more work and perhaps some uncomfortable discussions for us as school communicators, this also represents an opportunity. These cuts, with little to no relief projected for next year’s budget, provide a chance to reach out to your community and forge a stronger relationship.

Whether it’s eliciting community feedback on budget decisions, a superintendent doing his best to help stakeholders understand the basics of school finance, or producing budget-specific publications, these transparent two-way budget discussions will help your district develop greater credibility as you move into more prosperous times.

Here are some examples of what school districts are doing that NSPRA has come across (and if you have examples please send them to us and/or start a topic on the NSPRA forums):

How Would You Spend A Dollar?

Cindy Gibson, APR, the assistant to the superintendent at Ritenour School District in St. Louis, Mo., said one of the biggest challenges to communicating during a time of budget woes is that so many people have such varied opinions on how the money should be spent.

“If you have a dollar and I have a dollar, we could very well end up spending it in completely different ways,” Gibson said. “What we have to do is try and communicate to people why the budget is being spent the way it is.”

“If you have a dollar
and I have a dollar,
we could very well
end up spending it
in completely
different ways.”

Cindy Gibson, APR

In order to do that, Gibson embarked on a project to gauge how the community values those programs, positions and services that make up the school budget. First she eliminated essential elements of the budget that are beyond debate (federally mandated programs, essential operating costs, required professional development, etc.). Left with the budget variables, Gibson was trying to put together as much research as she could find to give stakeholders an accurate portrayal not only of cost, but of the value of each variable to the students. She was then going to take what she called talking points to a series of mini-public engagement events in hopes of stimulating a discussion within the context of the parameters and research she would put forth.

“I wanted to be able to provide enough information that our community could accurately talk about class size and afterschool programs and decide which was more important to them,” Gibson said. “So, for example, we provide busing so kids can participate in afterschool activities. Research will show you that the more kids that are involved in those activities, the better they do in school. So do we put class size above that transportation or do we rank transportation above class size? It’s those types of tough discussions that we need to have. In the end, hopefully we have the opportunity to get totally different perspectives but that we’ll all understand best practices and where those who see things differently are coming from.”

The Bottom Line … in E-Mail Form

Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) communications department produces several electronic newsletters but none has generated the positive response among recipients quite like The Bottom Line, a newsletter dedicated to the school’s budget.

“We got an overwhelming response, which I think just shows that the budget is on everyone’s mind right now,” said Barbara Hunter, APR, the assistant superintendent for communications and community outreach.

in this together
Check out all of NSPRA's
Budget Materials in the
Budget Communications

The newsletter debuted on Jan. 8 – the day after the superintendent proposed the budget – and runs about every two weeks. It tackles the key budget issues in an informative, brief format and provides links for those inclined to read in more detail. It also offers tips on getting involved in the process and a list of important dates.

One of the more popular features has been the “Myth Buster” – a section that tackles common misperceptions about budgets and the FCPS budget in particular. How did they generate those myths? From parents who were encouraged to ask any questions they desired through an e-mail address the district provided.

The newsletter, which Hunter plans to continue during the next budget process, generated dozens of positive comments from readers.

Video: It’s Easier than Reading

Some districts have turned to video as a way to help their superintendents reach out to the community. Video allows for a more personal form of communication and, to be honest, makes it easier for parents who may spend a good portion of their day reading on a computer screen at work.

Hunter’s district is heavily involved in video, operating three television stations, and it has several videos up related to the budget – including one on class size and another with a timeline of the budget process. You can view those here.

Broward County Public Schools Superintendent James F. Notter posts regularly in a video blog (vlog) and several of those touch on budget issues (see entries on “The New Normal” and “Our Budget”).

Budget Snapshot

A challenge in budget communications of any kind – good news or bad – is presenting the information in a clear and concise fashion. Shannon Rigsby, communications officer at Mustang (Okla.) Public Schools, led the way in developing a snapshot of the district’s budget that is easy to read and addresses several key issues. Among those tackled are what makes up the district’s revenue, where the money from the general fund is currently spent and what the district is doing to respond to budget cuts.

The Q&A format is a good way of delivering information in bite-sized pieces. The PDF was distributed first to the school board, the media, the chamber of commerce and the Positive Posse – a community group that discusses local issues at a community center.

The document was then sent out to all employees and will be included in an electronic newsletter to parents.

Keeping Your Superintendent Visible in Tough Times

Your superintendent is a key figure in any communications, but when a district is potentially facing tough cuts, the leader’s role is even more pronounced. Fort Bend (Texas) ISD Superintendent Tim Jenney sent an e-mail to staff laying out the details of the budget crisis and attempting to put things in context while urging them to try and remember all the progress the district has made despite the economic challenges.

The e-mail found its way into the media, which Mary Ann Simpson, APR, an NSPRA member and chief communications officer at Fort Bend ISD, anticipated and you should too, should your superintendent send such an e-mail.

But the response was strong, and Simpson and Fort Bend ISD followed up with a survey looking for suggestions, comments and, in general, a two-way budget dialogue.

"We actually began the school year by e-mailing all staff what we call a 'Be Informed' communication that provides important information to staff in an easy to read and understand Q&A format," Simpson said. "It basically provided the framework for us to begin to explain to our staff members the seriousness of what we were facing in regard to the budget. It answers a lot of questions and provides what we believe was a good explanation. In early February, the superintendent sent out his mesage, describing in more detail the seriousness of our budget challenges. Shortly after that, HR sent out the survey to all staff asking for their suggestions on how to cut costs. After reviewing the 1,000 plus suggestions we received, the superintendent sent out a second message that summarizes the feedback from the survey, and lets them know what the next steps are."

In Closing …

While no communication initiative is going to make people feel good about budget cuts, layoffs or increased class sizes, it’s important to understand that this is an opportunity. How your district responds to this crisis will likely go a long way toward developing your district’s reputation and credibility as well as your role within the district.

Has your district had success with a new or innovative budget communications tactic? E-mail us and let us know