In the best of times fostering a positive district image in the eyes of community members and building close, productive relationships with key stakeholders are daunting challenges. If the parents of our students were our districts’ only “paying customers,” external/stakeholder relations wouldn’t be such a monumental challenge for public school districts. But local taxpayers, the majority of whom these days don’t have children in public school classrooms, pay a large part of the local share of the K-12 tab, and these paying customers can be a really hard sell. For one thing, many of them appear to share the widespread distrust of public institutions, and unless they happen to have kids in the public schools, they’re unlikely to know much about what’s going on in their public school district educationally or administratively.
But the past two years have been anything but the best of times, as school districts have contended with a pandemic that is apparently far from over, so the video interview I recently recorded with Superintendents Gillian Chapman (Teton County School District #1, Wyoming), Bryan Luizzi, New Canaan Public Schools, Connecticut), and Patrick Watson (Bloomfield Hills Schools, Michigan) couldn’t be more timely and pertinent. As you’ll learn from the interview, Gillian, Bryan, and Pat have been guided by three maxims in spearheading their districts’ community/stakeholder relations strategies. First, the good work your district accomplishes never has and never will speak for itself, which means that aggressive community relations strategies are a must – at all times, but especially in the midst of an horrific health crisis. Second, if school districts don’t take the initiative in image building, their image will be shaped by external critics, utilizing powerful social media tools. And third, as the district chief executive officer, the superintendent must play a hands-on, highly visible role in fashioning and executing community/stakeholder relations strategies. Merely delegating this critical function to a district administrator and taking an aloof approach would be a sure-fire recipe for failure – in terms of a terribly tarnished district image.
One of the really interesting things you’ll learn from my interview with Gillian, Bryan, and Pat is that adversity can be a powerful goad to innovation in the community relations arena. All three of my distinguished panelists believe that building trust among students, parents, the public at large and key stakeholder organizations is a top-tier issue anytime, but especially during a constantly shape-shifting pandemic that has made people fearful, bewildered, and suspicious. And they understand that trust cannot be effectively fostered by relying exclusively on conventional means such as newsletters. So all three superintendents have not only enthusiastically embraced the role of district “Communicator-in-Chief,” they’ve significantly enriched the role by striving to speak in a more “authentic” voice – standing less on ceremony, being candid, even to the point of sharing their own vulnerability, and making clear that “we are all in this together.”
In only an hour together, we couldn’t get into the role of school board members in the community/stakeholder relations arena in any detail, so you can expect a future post at this blog focusing on this critical dimension. As our readers well know, your school board members are in a unique position to make a significant contribution – both through their governing work and their non-governing, hands-on diplomatic and image building activities – to strengthening your district’s public image and building its relationships with critical constituents and stakeholders. Their position on the school board gives them unique visibility and clout. Not only are they perceived as important community leaders, but they are also seen as above the fray and less captive to the system they are responsible for governing than the superintendent and her administrative team. School board members also bring with them to the boardroom strong community contacts and affiliation networks and familiarity with the people who elected them. They are woven into the fabric of the community, rather than observing it from a distance, and this uniquely equips your board members to reach out, capturing minds and hearts on behalf of the public schools. Stay tuned!