School budget public forums dominated by familiar faces, opinions

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.