Key Communicators Can Amplify Support

by Martha Bruckner

With seeming disbelief, the Omaha World Herald reported not long ago on an upcoming school budget hearing: "District 66 school officials are proposing to increase taxes and cut eight teaching positions. ... And no one is complaining."

The report indicated the Westside Community School District would be the only one in Omaha’s metropolitan area to substantially increase its tax rate in 1996-97. Only one community member addressed the subsequent budget hearing, and that person spoke in favor of the increase.

How does a 5,300-student school district generate a level of popular support to allow such a positive occurrence when so many school districts today consider even modest tax hikes a risk? Undoubtedly many reasons can be cited for the Westside district's atypical support, foremost among them a revitalized program known as "Key Communicators."

Multiple Parts

Five years ago Westside Superintendent Ken Bird set out to improve and expand communication with various stakeholders. In addition to placing new attention on written publications for internal and external audiences, the superintendent and school board president instituted a series of informal open forums with all school parent organizations.

As a third aspect of the communications plan, the district began to build a program directed toward "essential communicators"—those generally perceived to be gatekeepers of information in the community and persons with wide credibility.

While other school districts run such program, the particulars of Westside’s successful program warrant review. Educators and board members nominated community members who might influence others. Noticing that most of the submitted names were upper-middle-class opinion leaders, government leaders, and corporate leaders, the superintendent considered it vital to add "salt of the earth" people, such as citizens who lived in the district but did not have children in school for many years.

Since the Westside Community Schools border other metropolitan districts, school leaders believed it important to let community leaders from outside the district know about the workings of Westside. For that reason, non-patrons were invited to become key communicators.

Feedback Expected

The program was explained to the key communicators as part of the initial invitation in December 1994: "In an effort to enhance our ability to keep community members informed about our schools and to provide additional opportunities for citizens to express their ideas and concerns, Westside Community Schools is establishing a network of people... [called] 'Key Communicators' ... We will contact [you] whenever there is a need to disseminate information quickly and accurately and whenever there is a particular item of interest. It is our hope that this information will be relayed to others. ..."

Participants were advised that no meetings would take place, but they were expected to provide continuing feedback to designated school district representatives. Topics that have been the subject of mailings include: budget plans, new school openings, strategic plans for the district, and review of state legislation. Mailings are done on an as-needed basis.

During the first 26 months, the district distributed eight mailings, averaging 32 pages of material. The mailing list today includes 167 key communicators.

Three Guidelines

The Key Communicators Program is relatively inexpensive for the potential benefits. To be effective, programs should follow these certain guidelines:

* Keep the membership limited. If too many persons receive the extra information, there is no special distinction in being part of the group.

* Limit the information that is sent. If the communicators are bombarded by massive information, the usefulness of the program diminishes as information becomes less read or noted.

* Make certain participants understand their role. The recipients are expected to share information with their colleagues and neighbors and offer feedback to district administrators. If participants' only involvement is to read the information, then the full benefits of communication are halted.

Bird pinpointed the value of the Key Communicators program as such: "It comes down to the idea that the time to make friends is before you need them."

Martha Bruckner is assistant professor of Educational Administration and Supervision, University of Nebraska at Omaha.