Monthly Archive for: ‘May, 2010’
It’s tempting for school district leaders to ratchet up the language when talking to patrons about the impacts of this budget crisis on students, staff, families and the community. For the short- and long-term health of the district/patron relationship, however, it’s wise to take a breath and consider the strategic implications before making any dramatic pronouncements.
Savvy school districts have brought their patrons along for the ride as they took a look at next year’s checkbook and began slicing here and dicing there. While many patrons are smarting today because their pet program was not spared, at least they know that the district sweated bullets making these decisions. They have seen the school district doing what they have had to do around their home, if this economy has affected them, and it’s created empathy like no time in recent memory.
To turn around and use hyperbolic language – even if such language might be the most accurate way to describe the potential changes coming in the future – changes the relationship at a time when school districts have patrons’ advocacy.
Instead, make the language matter-of-fact and let the reader, listener or viewer draw his or her own conclusion about the significance of the situation. There’s no need to say “class sizes might grow by five or more students, meaning less personal attention, if we need to cut 30 more teachers.” Just saying “the future may require 30 additional cuts in the teaching staff, which will lead to larger class sizes” will get the same message out there without the shock language that patrons will easily conjure up on their own – without the district’s help.
As state budgets slog toward finalization, and school districts are close to getting a fairly accurate sense of what their resources will be for the year to come, it’s more important that ever not to lose the patron relationship traction gained during the weeks and months of anxiety.
School districts that engaged their patrons in the process by presenting the facts, seeking input, and keeping citizens informed as difficult budget decisions were being made locally could easily find themselves exhaling and, at the same time, forgetting that patrons remain interested. In essence, if you sought their involvement as a way of protecting your flank as difficult decisions were being made (“Patrons were asked to comment…”) don’t ignore them now that the surgery has been completed on the coming year’s budget.
Why? Two big reasons.
First, this situation is one large part nightmare, but one small part blessing. The blessing is that you’ve taken advantage of a true opportunity to partner with your patrons in making difficult decisions. They may not have liked all the choices your school district made when the final cuts were selected, but they saw that you gave them the opportunity to speak up when it really mattered. This has positively changed the dynamic – even in districts that already had a great relationship with their patrons. Take full advantage of it, by communicating early and often just how important patron input was in the decision-making.
Second, if you’ve been successful in telling this three-part story – less money from the state plus lower local property values equals cuts for us – you’ve already begun selling the notion that you’ll need some tax adjustment at the local level (assuming that such a proposal is possible in your district), without saying a specific word about it. The biggest impediment to getting patrons to support an increase – “You just need to cut first” – is gone, and not in secret, but in huge headlines in the local media and at the coffee shop. While the time might not be right for such a proposal just now, keep up the drumbeat of your district’s fiscal responsibility and patron involvement so that when you make your pitch, the foundation will already have been laid.
“Thank you. Thank you very much.”
That is the staple quote for every Elvis impersonator on the planet – a tribute to the King’s well-documented habit of thanking his audience for applause. It’s a lesson we all could learn from the man from Memphis.
When’s the last time someone from your school district said “thank you” to a patron? An average patron ponies up thousands and thousands of dollars over a lifetime supporting his or her local school district. Yet I doubt most have ever heard the words “thank you” from a district staff member, teacher or student for this investment.
What an opportunity! What if every school district employee made it his or her personal goal to say “thank you” to a random district patron today? It would give immediate substance to the idea that “education is a partnership,” would offer meaningful, long-term brand-building benefits for the district, and create the kind of environment that increases the likelihood of success for ballot measures – no matter what the economic climate.
Try it, and let us know what happens. Hey, it worked for Elvis.