Spotlight

Blogging by Board Members: Relationships and Sharing

by BRIAN A. WHEELER

It’s been two weeks and my 11th-grade daughter still has not accepted my request from Facebook to become my friend. To be honest, I didn’t really expect an open door into her social life. Fortunately, the nonprofit I run also just created a page on the Facebook website. So I was happy she became a “fan” of my company while saving face with her friends at school.

I have been blogging as an elected member of the Albemarle County school board in central Virginia since 2005. I am also a professional blogger in that my day job involves publishing local news and audio podcasts on a blog.

B WheelerBrian Wheeler


When I visit students in our classrooms and ask whether there are any bloggers, nobody raises their hands. When I ask, “Do you use Facebook?” everybody raises their hands. A blog is simply a website that facilitates a two-way conversation and that publishes a “feed” allowing you to subscribe to new content. Someone writes a story, and others respond with their comments. Virtually every news website supports these interactions today. Facebook obviously meets that basic definition of a blog, but it is certainly much more, as the epicenter of social networking on the Internet.

Constituent Service
For the past decade, I have been using technology to share information in our community for people interested in getting the facts, making informed decisions and improving our schools. It started in 1999 with a simple e-mail list. When I was elected to the school board I added a constituent website. Then I added a blog and an online calendar. During the past spring, I added Facebook and Twitter. I am now “twittering” school news (short online posts, 140 characters or less), providing links back to my constituent blog.

In my work on the school board and with our superintendent, blogging is one tool for building relationships, sharing relevant information and fostering community engagement. Those should be goals of any elected official and school administrator.

Forget about blogs for a second. Ask yourself, what does the public want of elected officials and school leaders in general? The focus-group research I have studied says they want us to look at the big picture; ensure all the options are on the table and evaluated; do what benefits the community as a whole; define a decision-making process that is fair and understandable; encourage democracy and public participation; and be held accountable for our decisions.

These are statements I hear constantly repeated by the public at hearings on the budget, on school closures and on school redistricting. Blogging is one powerful way we can deliver on the expectations for engagement and information dissemination of the citizens we serve. When school board members and superintendents blog, people listen. The local news media listen.

You may be thinking your school division already invests a lot of resources in communication to engage the public and the media. I don’t doubt you send out press releases, that you speak in the community, that you post materials on your website. Blogging is different. As a decision maker, if I share a position or a question publicly online and allow for people to add their comments, people respond, reporters call. It is still a pretty novel thing for an elected official or a superintendent to share information in this manner.

Tool of Engagement
Blogging forces me to do my homework and listen to many more voices in the community. As a result, it leads me to make better decisions for our students. I blog about positive things in our schools (success stories, visits to classrooms, students in the news). I blog about interesting things the media might want to write about. I blog about controversial issues (redistricting, budget, curriculum issues).

Blogging engages our school staff and the public. My information is often forwarded to hundreds of parents at a time via other school-based e-mail lists.
Blogging engages our students. Students at our high schools have interviewed me for their daily news programs and invited me to meet with their classes after reading a post.

Blogging is an important tool for media engagement. Journalists want help telling stories in the community. These media outlets obviously reach a much larger audience outside the blogosphere. Recently I even found myself “friending” all our local reporters on Facebook, and unlike my daughter, they have accepted my invitations. Building relationships with your local media is a good thing for your school community.

There are policy challenges related to our use of blogs and social networking websites. Questions about who speaks for the board and when. Questions about whether comments can be allowed on a superintendent’s blog. If the public comments, can you delete ones you don’t like? As one school board member, I blog independently and I have a prominent disclaimer on my material to make it clear it is not an official school communication.

Despite these challenges, we should work toward the use of blogs to further our educational mission. These new tools require the same care and professional judgment as any other form of communication.

My 20-something niece also recently became a fan of my nonprofit community organization on Facebook where we share links to the in-depth stories appearing on our blog. “I like how your information just pops up on my homepage,” she said.

Blogging offers tremendous potential for superintendents and school board members to reach a larger audience, and increasingly that audience is using these online tools to build relationships and share information.

Brian Wheeler is chair of the Albemarle County school board in Charlottesville, Va. E-mail: bwheeler@k12albemarle.org. His blog can be found at http://schoolmatters.typepad.com.