Communications strategy important after the trauma has passed

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.