Category Archive for: ‘Issues & Trends’
Recently, we wrote that we were seeing an increase in patrons suggesting “fundraisers” as a way for their school district to solve its budget challenges, as if cookie dough and wrapping paper sales were the path to financial stability.
The other side of that story consists of patrons’ ideas for cost savings. We’ve seen more than a few patrons suggesting such fixes as eliminating lamination, copying on both sides of the paper, dropping (or raising, depending on the season) the thermostat by 1 degree in buildings district-wide, and instructing staff to turn off lights in rooms they are not in.
All of these ideas – while well-intentioned and, in most cases, worth considering on general principles – make it clear that these patrons have a limited idea of the significance of the budget challenges. Over time, ideas such as these will make a notable difference. But, the school district doesn’t have the luxury of such time.
It seems clear that if your patrons continue to produce ideas that will save pennies, it means that you need to keep drawing their attention back to the enormity of the challenge, the difficult steps that have already been taken, and the ones which may need to be considered in the future.
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 the calendar pages turn and school districts find themselves up against deadlines for making budget decisions for next year, many are turning to public meetings in an effort to provide patrons a venue to share their thoughts about what should be cut and what should be saved.
We’ve attended our fair share of these events – both professionally and personally – and find them to be generally of limited value in determining true patron opinion for two reasons.
First, it’s difficult to structure such programs to provide everyone in attendance a comfortable method to share their opinions. Open microphones tend to draw the passionate, but keep the silent majority glued to their seats. Small discussion groups can be dominated by vociferous patrons, leaving the quieter ones in the dust. Even setting up stations where patrons can share opinions more one-on-one with district staff members is problematic.
Second, those in attendance tend to be either the district’s “frequent flyers” who come to every such meeting, or the newly enraged who come itching to do battle, armed with a list of their favorite district programs in their back pockets. As such, most school district leaders can probably guess how the evening’s festivities will go, even before the doors open and the guests arrive.
Make no mistake: Public forums can be an important part of a comprehensive program of data gathering, and they provide cover for the district against patrons who might say “Nobody ever gave me the chance to share my opinion.” But, making meaningful, life-changing decisions based on the opinions gathered at a couple of meetings at your high school’s cafeteria is a very risky proposition.