The Right Place, The Right Time

Superintendents have a golden opportunity to stem citizens’ retreat from public life in their communities by William G. O'Callaghan and Charles M. Irish

Superintendents are in the right place at the right time to take advantage of a golden opportunity to reverse a trend that threatens our nation’s schools and communities. They are now uniquely positioned to stop the retreat of good-hearted, well-intentioned citizens from public life.

For the past 20 years, we have been working with leaders in business, politics and other professions, and the bottom line is that school superintendents are positioned to see more clearly than most of their professional counterparts the growing disconnection between our nation’s public and private institutions and the people they serve. What’s more, some superintendents are taking the next step and doing something about it.

A Steady Retreat
“Many Americans say they have too often abdicated their civic responsibility. And yet they can neither see nor imagine any recourse or alternate path,” says Richard Harwood, a respected authority on the growing challenges facing America and its public schools. He describes what is happening to our nation’s core support base in his book Hope Unraveled: The People’s Retreat and Our Way Back.

In conversations spanning more than a decade in dozens of cities across the country, Harwood finds a nation struggling with growing consumerism, distorted realities and false divisions that cut across cultural, political and media landscapes. He observes that Americans are retreating from public life and while they abhor this retreat they feel lost about what to do.

Sound familiar? It should. The fallout from this retreat from public life is having a profound impact upon the traditional core base of support for our public schools.

Our experience in Ohio supports this view. Public opinion trend data complied by W.G. O’Callaghan and Associates for the past two decades shows a recent dramatic shift in the views of residents who indicate they support school tax issues. During the past two years, the percentage of yes voters who believe the tax burden is growing too large and school spending needs to be curbed has increased from 0-5 percent to 15-40 percent.

In school district after school district, superintendents are losing their safety net and finding it increasingly difficult to pass tax levies, restructure educational programs and lead their schools and communities in other important ways. The core group of citizens who over the years have supported their public schools (unfortunately more out of a sense of loyalty and blind faith rather than an understanding of what school is really like today) is shrinking.

Perpetual Traps
Many school leaders know that if the public schools are to survive, fervent attention needs to be paid to the relationship between their schools and communities. It is ironic, however, that these well-intended efforts often serve to compromise the relationship.

The traps listed below include high ideals blended with traditional approaches to working with the public. The outcomes generated, unfortunately, do not always support a stronger relationship with the community.

  • Trap 1: Selling preordained decisions.
    School leaders often attempt to sell a major issue to the community without bringing their stakeholders together to discuss the different choices and tradeoffs that are involved. This approach usually involves trying to persuade the public to buy a preordained decision. Citizens are shut out from the complex decision making that defines today’s community and consequently do not have the opportunity to investigate the pros and cons of different courses of action.

“Support your schools because we know best” may have been a slogan that worked in a simpler time when there were fewer hard choices to make. But in our complex society where good decisions are based on values and convictions, that mantra doesn’t work anymore.

  • Trap 2: Manufacturing representation.
    In an attempt to bring the public into the decision-making process, small groups are sometimes formed to make recommendations for decisions that are intended to represent the will of the larger community. This frequently occurs as part of strategic planning or curriculum development.

The reality is that no such group can truly represent the community. If the community as a whole is not involved in working through difficult and complex issues, residents will not relate to them and support appropriate courses of action. In their minds, these issues become remote and someone else’s problem.

  • Trap 3: Dumping information.
    A common activity for schools is to provide volumes of information to the community without creating knowledge and understanding around it. This approach assumes that information alone is the means to knowledge and that those receiving it will interpret it the same way as those who prepared it.

Although information is essential for making informed decisions, far too little time is spent creating a context for it and providing opportunities for people to make meaning of it. Consequently, the result is that reactionary opinions rather than thoughtful decisions often emerge.

  • Trap 4: Cutting engagement short.
    Many superintendents try to make community involvement around major issues more authentic. They provide information about the difficult decisions that have to be made and they create opportunities for people to come together to talk about them.

However, far too often in this “I need it by yesterday” society, citizens are not given enough time and space to work through the ambiguity that is inherent in many issues and concerns today. Decisions are often made before people can come to grips with the competing choices. In the end, citizens often feel betrayed by the process. They feel asked but not heard.

  • Trap 5: Doing it alone.
    Leading community engagement is hard work and often viewed as an add-on to an already overbooked schedule. As a result, it is often not done well, if at all. One of the most difficult hurdles to overcome is the assumption that engagement is the sole responsibility of the superintendent. Tradition dictates that this person is at the central point of all community engagement, which supports a growing acceptance in our society that our fate is in one person’s hands and that citizens are merely bystanders rather than active owners in the future of their community and schools.


  • Trap 6: Buying into the politicians and pundits.
    One of the most common traps today is believing that the average citizen has the same views and priorities as our politicians and pundits. For example, school leaders establish goals that assume the only things the community really cares about are higher test scores. Yet when citizens are given the opportunity to talk about these issues, their language and priorities are often different from the school and political experts. The work of the Public Agenda Foundation over the past decade has repeatedly established that a safe and caring environment is at least as important to citizens as test scores. So in the absence of people coming together to identify and discuss their common aspirations and to make some hard choices, people retreat to a world that says protect your own.

Tough Questions
The simple truth is that our profession is trapped into looking for mechanical answers. We retool old techniques, looking to stumble on a silver bullet or hoping that the researchers will find it for us. Instead, we need to view our work as tending to human relationships.

If relationships are truly important, then it is time to ask ourselves some tough questions:

  • Why do schools publish newsletters that give only the good news — except for the negative things someone did to us, such as cutting our funding?


  • Why is it that the only time and place for the community to engage the school board in conversation is at the monthly board meeting while they silently sit behind their table like people who have just taken the 5th Amendment?


  • Why do many school leaders ask the community to form an opinion before giving residents a chance to work through the issue?


  • Why do we ask the community to come to a meeting to rubberstamp a decision already made and then act puzzled when no one shows up?


  • Why do we keep forgetting that about 75 percent of the people in our communities don’t have kids in school?

Trend Reversal
The good news is that a growing number of superintendents and other school leaders are asking these tough questions and discovering how to work in more productive ways on the relationship between their schools and communities. Some of them are even building formal organizational structures, which they call school-community partnerships, to create genuine opportunities for citizens to see their voices in the important decisions being made in their school districts.

A brief look at three school districts that are building school-community partnerships illustrates how creating an organizational structure for reconnecting schools and communities is working. One is a small rural district, the second is a mid-sized urban district and the third is an upper-middle-class suburban district.

In Orrville, Ohio, school district leaders in this small rural community have received significant support from a community group nurtured into existence in 1991 by the J.M. Smucker Co. The Heartland Education Community was set up to support community-based learning and to shift responsibility for education to the community.

Over that time, this formal organization has provided assistance in planning and has supported a character education program. Recently, it has sponsored several community conversations to discuss school building closings and grade-level reorganization. As a result of this effort, the community strongly backed a decision to make a major shift in grade-level organization among Orrville’s five school buildings.

Encouraged by this success, the school-community partnership initiated a number of small- and large-group meetings to talk about the “Orrville Way” as a guide to values-based decisions around the construction of a new middle school. At the present time, it is embarking on an effort to bring the entire community into discussions around the school and the community’s mutual responsibility to be accountable for the education of all their children and to describe what that looks like in Orrville.

The superintendent reports that although the work of the partnership is very time-consuming, it becomes worth every minute of it when he hears citizens say, “Thanks for asking.”

Springfield, Ohio, an urban district with 9,200 students, has been experiencing serious financial problems and a decline in student enrollment since its heyday nearly 20 years ago. Faced with a financial takeover by the state, the merging of two diverse high schools and a myriad of other difficult challenges, the superintendent requested funding from a local foundation to help build a community partnership. Her goal was to create a school-community partnership that would become a permanent vehicle for bringing citizens together to discover their shared aspirations for their schools and community and to include these common goals into the important decisions confronting the school district.

Participants struggled at first to understand the role of such an organization. Everyone was used to participating in short-term projects with specific goals, and this new approach seemed vague. Yet over time it became clear how they could change the way the community talks about itself. Their first effort was to sponsor a community meeting that attracted nearly 200 citizens to talk about their aspirations for education in the community and the barriers faced in achieving these goals.

As a follow-up, the partnership is organizing 100 small-group meetings to provide all residents with an opportunity to discuss what they care about. When this effort is complete, themes developed from these conversations will be used to frame the work of a number of study groups. These groups will, in turn, create a values-based framework for dealing with specific issues.

In Avon Lake, Ohio, school and community leaders recently embarked on an unconventional approach to bringing a tax issue before its voters. In an attempt to bring all voices into the pre-election discussions, they created conversations around the issues that were on the community’s mind. They avoided the typical levy activities that rely on manipulation and guilt, resulting in a polarized community. This large-scale community conversation has become the foundation for forming a school-community partnership. (See related story.)

The Right Path
In our work with the leaders of these school districts, we have discovered three constants associated with their success in building effective partnerships with their communities:

The partnership is community-based.
It is not enough to say, “We are going to be working on our relationship with the community.” These efforts must be organized by a broad-based community group that is independent from school district control (although in partnership with the schools). The group must be strategic in its approach so it can reach the entire community. However, it must be flexible enough to allow citizens to talk about what really matters to them. The perceived dichotomy between the rigid and the flexible begins to vanish when a laser-like focus is directed on a common goal to achieve authentic, deep and broad community conversation and involvement.

Each of the three partnerships discovered its identity had to be separate from the school district (or any other group for that matter). When the partnership leaders accepted that reality, they no longer felt the need to ask permission or take direction from the school district. That is when a true partnership began.

The partnership is all-inclusive.
The organization seeks individuals for its membership who come from all corners of the community. Although traditional school supporters must be included, it recognizes that its credibility becomes stronger as it seeks to include all voices.

There is a point in the formation of a partnership where the group recognizes it doesn’t reflect the diversity of the community. That recognition and the work to change it moves the partnership toward sustainability. At nearly every meeting, someone will ask the question, “Who else needs to be here?”

The partnership is supported by a courageous school leader.
These school-community partnerships function best when they have the support of a school leader who is willing to encourage unbridled conversation in the community rather than trying to control it with traditional spin. It takes a leader who understands how to bring community values into the decision-making process and who believes the strongest school system is one in which the citizens feel an ownership and responsibility for the future of their schools. Finally, it takes a leader who truly trusts the residents of his or her community.

In the all of the examples listed above, the school-community partnerships have been able to grow because of strong superintendents who are not threatened by a public that wants to see its voice in the school district’s agenda. In fact, in all of these cases, the superintendents have been the prime motivators for the formation of the partnership.

A Golden Chance
One of the myths currently being propagated by the national news media is that we have become a polarized nation. However, a syndicated newspaper columnist on economic policy, Robert J. Samuelson, disputes this claim.

In his 2004 column “How Polarization Sells,” Samuelson says: “What’s actually happened is that politics, and not the country, has become more polarized. By politics, I mean elected party officials, party activists, advocates, highly engaged voters and commentators (TV talking heads, pundits). … The result is a growing disconnect between politics—and political commentary—and ordinary life.”

So if you buy Samuelson’s thesis — and we do because we see it every day in our work with schools and communities — the growing retreat of good people from public life can not only be stopped but may well be a golden opportunity for school superintendents and other educational leaders throughout our nation.

Because of their experience in bringing people together to address a wide variety of educational issues and concerns, superintendents can serve as a lighthouse of hope and direction for not only their schools but also for their communities. They can provide hope for those who are losing hope and direction for those who don’t know what to do about it.

In fact, not only can they serve as a lighthouse, they must if we are to reverse the trend of losing our support base.

William O’Callaghan and Charles Irish are founding partners of the Santa Rita Collaborative, 1201 Virginia Ave., Lakewood, OH 44107. E-mail: wocallaghan@santaritacollaborative.com