Feature

Transparency

Bouncing back from tax levy and referenda setbacks, these four school systems applied a hefty dose of openness, solid planning and ongoing communication with the public by Scott LaFee

Don Lifto was a young school principal in the late-1970s when Minnesota implemented one of the first public participation laws in the country. It was called the Planning, Evaluating and Reporting law, or PER. It required school districts to establish committees, composed mostly of parents, to oversee things like curriculum development, standardized testing and reports to the public.

School administrators were not pleased.

“For most Minnesota school districts, including mine, complying with the new PER law was done with reticence at best, kicking and dragging to the committee meetings at worst,” recalls Lifto, who eventually became a longtime superintendent and now works as senior vice president at Springsted, a St. Paul-based firm providing financial advice to cities, counties, school districts, universities and other public entities.

He admits his early discussions focused begrudgingly on how the school district could comply with the law “without losing control or power.”

Hard Lessons
Obviously much has changed. Citizens now expect access to information, particularly from public institutions like local school districts. They demand input and accountability. Cultural and technological changes, such as the Internet, make it possible for districts to comply. Yet transparency — the easily seen and understood actions of a school district and the thinking behind them — often remains more of an ideal than a reality.

“Most school leaders have not been nurtured in (the concept of) transparency,” says Richard Bagin, executive director of the National School Public Relations Association. They fear practices that promote openness might undermine their power and position, give fuel to special-interest groups with opposing agendas or simply consume too much time.“Sometimes it takes a number of defeats in bond or finance elections to help clear the air for those who have the courage to ask voters why they lost,” Bagin said. “If they didn’t win because the community didn’t want new synthetic turf in the stadium or a swimming pool, that’s a content issue. But if they didn’t win because the trust level was extremely low, [administrators] need to open up to prove that we are all in this together. They need to say, ‘Here’s what we have to work with. Now what would you do to provide the level of education we expect in our community?’ Some administrators see this as giving up their responsibility, but sharing it in this fashion builds a trusting relationship with those who participate.”

Fortunately, it’s possible to learn hard lessons an easier way: to learn them from the examples of others. Last summer NSPRA handed out its Gold Medallion awards honoring education public relations programs that combined insightful assessment, superb planning, creative communication, careful evaluation and, well, transparency. A look at four recipients and their stories:

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Charlotte, N.C.
In recent years, Charlotte, N.C., has enjoyed enormous growth and prosperity as home to major banks, other Fortune 500 companies and, according to the Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s most educated workforce.

But good times can cut both ways. The steady influx of new residents and families meant the 137,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system had grown fast, maybe too fast. A record 4,000-plus new students were being enrolled each year, creating a burgeoning facilities crisis. More than 20,000 students were being taught in mobile classrooms.

In 2005, desperate for more buildings and new schools, school district leaders pushed for a $427 million construction bond. The political climate was not particularly favorable, but school leaders were optimistic. After all, the district hadn’t lost a bond measure in a public vote in more than a decade.

“There was hope that, in the end, we could eke out a victory. But in fact, it was a resounding defeat,” says Nora Carr, chief communications officer for Charlotte-Mecklenburg. The bond proposal lost 57 to 43 percent. “And that surprised some people.”

In retrospect, it probably shouldn’t have. Polling and surveys in the aftermath of the bond defeat revealed widespread dissatisfaction with the school board and district leadership and deep concerns about fiscal management, how previous bond monies had been spent and a general lack of information about what the district was doing.

“The administration was perceived as aloof, insular,” Carr says. “The district appeared to be closed off, not as connected to the community and parents as it should be.”

Listening First
Shortly after the decisive defeat, the school board hired a new superintendent, Peter C. Gorman. He immediately began to reach out to the public. “The first thing launched was a listening and learning tour,” says Carr. “The superintendent met with more than 500 individuals and groups. There were forums for questions and interaction, meetings with people morning, noon and night.”

The effort paid off. A district poll of parents in 2006 showed overwhelming approval for Gorman’s methods. “It wasn’t a program so much as a change of culture,” Carr says. “We’ve made a concerted effort to be transparent, to make all of the decision-making processes and all of the decisions as public as possible. At times, it’s been painful.”

Painful, indeed. When a teacher was caught injecting drugs in an empty classroom, the immediate reaction in the past would have been to “circle the wagons, wait to see if the media found out, work with authorities to minimize the police report,” Carr says.

Instead, Gorman held a press conference, expressing not just his outrage about what had happened but also explaining how it had happened and how the district would avoid similar situations in the future. “It sent a strong message about transparency,” Carr says.

With public confidence in the district growing, Charlotte-Mecklenburg leaders returned to the issue of school overcrowding. Parents cited it as among their top concerns. This time, though, the bond construction measure would be even bigger: $516 million.

Surveys pointed to iffy public support. “There was a lot of concern about the way previous money had been spent. … The district lost confidence because it didn’t communicate well,” Carr says. “There were all kinds of rumors and bad information circulating.”

To counter the misinformation and successfully push through the proposed bond in 2007, the district embarked upon a massive public information campaign. It consisted of education programs targeted at employees, parents, volunteers and the community. The district kept the message simple. There was no promotional theme or campaign slogan. It simply represented the facts and needs, according to district officials.

That information went out over a wide range of outlets: an electronic employee newsletter, staff e-mails, a special district website, the district’s cable TV channel, parent e-mails, district publications, the district’s mass notification system and weekly televised media briefings. School communications officers worked to place at least one facility need or bond-related story in local news outlets every week and actively pursued interviews on major television and radio programs.

Gorman was the top spokesperson, attending hundreds of public meetings, church services, coffee klatches and neighborhood socials to explain the bond’s scope and necessity.

Other administrators pressed the flesh, too. They were given “communications toolkits” to help answer questions from parents, employees and the public.

A Fringe Factor
The school district invested substantially in professional polling to track public opinion and likely voting trends. It focused on reaching out to new or underrepresented constituencies. It aggressively countered assertions and claims made by opponents of the bond measure.

“The opposition was still there, still saying the same stuff,” says Carr. “One of our biggest victories was showing the community that the voices of opposition, which had been so effective in 2005, were really more of a fringe factor. They didn’t represent the majority of people. They had simply been getting so much airtime and traction in political offices, that people had started wondering whether they were the mainstream view. The election showed they weren’t.”

To be sure: In November 2007, 68 percent of voters in Mecklenburg County approved the district’s $516 million construction bond — the largest in school district history, a resounding victory just two years after a crashing defeat.

The district currently is riding a wave of public support, which broadly approves of the district’s leadership and direction. But Carr says nobody is taking things for granted. Public outreach programs continue. A new electronic newsletter provides updates on how the approved bond funds are being spent. Opinion polls track the public’s response.

“The public trust is something we have to earn every day,” she says. “You can work for months building it, and one bad incident loses that trust for a long time. Transparency isn’t something you just trot out when you want money.”

 



North Clackamas Schools, Milwaukie, Ore.
Like Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the North Clackamas school district in Milwaukie, Ore., just south of Portland, suffered a devastating defeat when voters soundly rejected a 2004 operating fund measure by the largest margin in 20 years. (The meas-ure received just 43 percent approval.)

“We knew the (voters’) mood was poor. There was a sense of mistrust in institutions, not just locally but statewide and nationally,” says Joe Krumm, director of community and government relations for the 15,500-student suburban district. “What surprised us when we talked with voters later was how much they seemed to mistrust schools, particularly on financial matters.”

 



NasoSuperintendent Ron Naso (left) had to rebuild trust after the community rejected a 2004 spending proposal in the North Clackamas, Ore., school district with just 43 percent approval.

The district’s administration, led by Superintendent Ron Naso, realized the immense task at hand. He knew the district needed a stronger, more direct and transparent relationship with the community and key audiences before the next public vote. The 2004 fund measure had failed in large part because of growing mistrust among voters under the age of 55.

And so “The Trust Project,” as Krumm called it, was born, a multipronged effort to bring together and unify the diverse and sometimes conflicting constituencies in support of district programs and goals.

Picking Priorities
The first component was a community-based process to identify bond priorities, highlighted by 11 public meetings, numerous focus group sessions and surveys. “One of the ways you develop trust is to ask the community to look at the problem, let them tell us what we need to do,” Krumm says. “The meetings allowed people to react to our initial ideas. We changed the proposed bond to reflect that input, such as the size or what was done at certain schools.”

Naso, who’s been superintendent since 1995, agreed, saying, “The district has always been interested in building and maintaining trust with the community. This was different because this was a concentrated effort based on research seeking to respond to specific parts of the community with concerns. It required staff and community to buy into new initiatives.”

One of them was the Parent Institute, a professionally run, annual, all-day event that promotes methods and techniques for successful parenting. It also helps staff connect with parents as partners in children’s success. The first Parent Institute attracted 300 participants, and subsequent events have drawn 500 parents or more.

The school district reached out in other ways. It improved how budget information was disseminated, using newsletters, the district’s website, staff presentations, back-to-school nights, community forums, even a TV show.

Targeted mailings went out to voters, particularly the 70 percent of local residents without children in the North Clackamas schools. Principals wrote letters to nonparent voters in their neighborhoods detailing school news. “These people were invited to get involved even though they didn’t have kids in school. They were invited to see performances or volunteer in programs that interested them,” Krumm says. “People liked knowing more about what was going on.”

The district also established a close working relationship with the local chapter of Stand for Children, a nationwide education advocacy group. Because public schools in Oregon aren’t allowed to advocate for a bond measure, Stand for Children played that role.

Progress was made, Naso says, because he and administrative colleagues began listening intently to what the community was saying. It “helped us understand that the issues on the minds of the community were different than expected and how an issue we might consider minor could be more important than we anticipated,” he says.

In November 2006, North Clackamas officials went back before voters with a $229.6 million measure, the largest school bond in Oregon history. It passed with 55 percent of the vote, 11 points higher than campaign poll projections.

A Validation
Its success, the superintendent says, has validated and reaffirmed the administration’s commitment to open, expansive communications with the public, friends and foes.

“Any district that wants to establish and maintain a good relationship with its community needs to … understand how people learn about their schools and provide opportunities for feedback and participation in the decision-making process,” Naso says.

“It is a matter of continual listening and adjusting. Communication methods need to shift with the communication needs. … The discipline, diligence and resources it takes to have a good rapport with a changing community pay off through increased support for schools and students,” he adds. “As we have rolled out the bond projects, we have systems in place such as a Citizens Oversight Committee that reports to the community and a comprehensive bond website to make sure that information is provided and we are held accountable for the promises we make to the community.”

 


OrcuttKaren Orcutt, superintendent of the Orono, Minn., system, hired a communications director to raise community input after the defeat of four public levies.

Orono Public Schools, Long Lake, Minn.
Located 20 miles west of Minneapolis, the Orono Public Schools system serves a host of small communities. Total K-12 enrollment is 2,600, all on a single, sprawling 120-acre campus.

Well run, with excellent test scores and student academic performance, officials believed the district was in good shape in 2005 to pass four important public levies for operations, technology, and short- and long-term facility needs.

 



All four levy questions failed. A post-election telephone survey found that while the majority of voters supported at least some of the levies, they also harbored real concerns, fueled in large part by a vocal, organized opposition group that had employed outside help to defeat Orono’s levy proposals.

“People loved our schools, but they didn’t seem to know how excellent we really were,” says Karen Orcutt, who was the district’s relatively new superintendent at the time. “They didn’t know how well we compared to other districts. It was obvious that there was a great deal of confusion about Orono and that we didn’t fully understand the community or it understand us.”

One reason was resources. The district employed only one person part time to focus on communications. All of the work was done with two central-office staff members. After the vote, Orcutt hired a full-time professional, Gary Kubat, as director of communications. Together with others, they began plotting how to reconnect with the community.

“I had a million opinions on my desk, but I realized I had to first find out what was going on at a deeper level,” Orcutt says. That meant getting out from behind her desk and talking to parents, teachers, staff, community leaders and residents.

Orcutt initiated a series of coffees and other informal public sessions. “I went everywhere, listened to everybody. I stayed as long as people wanted to talk, and I listened very hard,” she says.

Though the meetings were often repetitive and not always well-attended, Orcutt says stories started circulating that the superintendent was out and about, actually visiting homes. “People thought it was a wonderful thing. It really snowballed the trust building.”

Public Alerts
One of the revealed criticisms was the lack of citizen involvement in district decision making. As a result, the district formed core groups comprised of business representatives, clergy, parents, students and community members to discuss the district’s needs and what should be done. As school officials began to rebuild levy proposals for new elections, they created a blue-ribbon facilities task force to visit every school and analyze its needs. Members ranged from a local roofer to the CEO of a major construction firm.

Equally critical, the district confronted head-on its opposition, which it publicly dubbed “the anti-progress group,” a moniker that seemed to resonate among voters. The district mailed “inoculation” letters to every family with children in Orono schools, alerting them to what they might see or hear from the anti-progress group. It sent out weekly internal e-mails, called the Referendum Report, to staff. Print pieces were produced for public consumption. The district website posted not just general information about the proposed levies, but copies of every relevant presentation, report, study, publication and video.

“We wanted people to know what was real and what was rumor, what was true and what wasn’t,” says Kubat.

The effort worked. The first revised levy — a facilities referendum — passed last February despite a worsening economy. “You have to let people see excellence. You have to help them understand the facts and how those facts are used in decisions,” Kubat adds. “It all has to be very transparent.”

Bloomington Public Schools, Bloomington, Minn.
In 2007, Bloomington Public Schools found itself in an unenviable position. For years, the 10,300-student suburban K-12 district just outside Minneapolis had struggled with an unreliable funding stream exacerbated by constantly rising costs and declining enrollment, the latter due in part to aggressive student recruiting by neighboring districts.

For the 2008-09 school year, it looked to be more of the same. The state legislature had approved just a single percentage-point increase in general funding, despite a projected inflationary growth of at least 2.5 percent. That translated to a new, looming deficit of $5.2 million for the school district, whose leaders would again be faced with the necessity of reducing staff, increasing class sizes and trimming or eliminating programs.

Feeling battered on all sides, school administrators and board members resurrected an old campaign theme, “Unite Bloomington for Schools.” The goal: Rally public support for two essential referenda — a $5.6 million operating levy for teaching and learning and a $3 million capital-projects levy for technology.

Getting voters to approve both would be an enormous challenge. The economy was down, and the local electorate seemed ill-disposed toward increased taxes and new levies.

But unlike past levy-raising efforts, the Bloomington leadership had no intention of trying to persuade an entire electorate that the additional monies were much needed and required. “And ‘no’ voters almost always turn out,” says Rick Kaufman, executive director of community relations.

For the new campaign, district leaders would concentrate on “scientific and research-driven efforts,” Kaufman says. “In the past, we had identified ‘yes’ voters through volunteers. … This time, we were a bit more scientific. We polled all likely voters: yes, no and undecided. Then we focused on the undecided.”

 


The district, led by Superintendent Les Fujitake, created a team of professionals and volunteers to run the effort. They mixed traditional campaign techniques (flyers, phone trees, meetings) with multiple polls and “dipstick surveys” to assess evolving community attitudes.

“We put the most pressure on the undecideds,” Kaufman says. “We called them at home. We bugged them. There was some concern that we might be pushing voters too far, but most people appreciated the focused effort. We knew that even when people complained about us bugging them, they would still come out to vote.”

 


FujitakeBloomington, Minn., Superintendent Les Fujitake focused on undecided voters in gaining approval of two key spending measures.

Capturing Undecideds
The message was always the same, emphasizing the district’s needs and value.

“This was my first campaign as superintendent,” says Fujitake, who came on board in July 2006, “but I didn’t change the way I do things as a leader. A leader’s job is to build a team and let them succeed. I built a leadership team with political campaign experience and followed their direction. When we discussed the issues, we stayed on point with our key messages.

“It is also important to point out that we … didn’t deviate from the plan, regardless of whatever negative opposition was out there or outside influences — like the economy, negative media coverage, etc. Our mantra was stay on message and speak with one clear voice,” the superintendent says.

It worked. Both referendum questions passed in November 2007. Post-vote analysis showed the school district had persuaded six undecided voters to vote yes for every one undecided voter who said no. Most voters said they appreciated the district’s efforts to get out the vote and explain why.

“If a school district has not done a good job of being transparent, of showing that they’ve conducted business in a responsible way, spent money wisely and done a good job of sharing that information, then it’s hard to make any argument for more funding,” Kaufman says.

“But we really worked hard to inform the public, to make them understand how the levies were important to them.”

Closing Counsel
The messages in these stories may seem simple and obvious. There’s not a school administrator in the country who would argue for anything less than honest and forthright relations with the public. Still, doing so can be harder than one suspects, says Paul Tandy, director of public affairs for the Parkway School District in Chesterfield, Mo., and a former Gold Medallion winner.

Tandy offers four pieces of counsel:

First, you have to develop a culture of transparency throughout the organization. “That doesn’t happen overnight. It’s easy to get frustrated and crawl back into your shell, particularly if you’ve been burned.”

Second, your efforts must transcend superintendent and school board turnover.

Third, too many districts underestimate the impact demographic shifts can have in their community. “Over time, your community may have changed dramatically, but you’re still doing business the same way and expecting to get the same results.”

Finally, you’ve got to be willing to expose your organization, warts and all. “You’ve got to be willing to let people know you’re not perfect and need their input and help. If you do this, you’ll eventually develop the community’s trust and they will support you.”

Scott LaFee is a health and science writer at the Union-Tribune in San Diego, Calif. E-mail: scott.lafee@uniontribune.com