Focus

Breakfast Fare That Includes Rumor Control

by Michael W. Jinks
Starting the day early with a nutritious breakfast has long been a goal for time- and health-conscious school administrators. When I arrived in Warrensburg, Mo., some 35 miles east of Kansas City, as the new superintendent 18 years ago, I discovered I was soon to be part of a great local tradition that made breakfast more than food for the body. I refer to this tradition as "the breakfast club."

The breakfast club brings community leaders together for breakfast once a month. We discuss a variety of topics, including rumor and gossip control, in an informal setting without media coverage. Since its inception the breakfast gathering has added members and assumed new influence and value for the participants.

The original four people who made up the breakfast club regulars were an eclectic group that included the city manager, the hospital administrator, the president of the local university and the superintendent. Over the years others have become regulars at the breakfast table. The newest members include the director of the chamber of commerce, the director of the local economic development corporation and the director of the main street organization. An important common thread is that each member is appointed by an elected board.

This common frame of reference enables members to comfortably discuss public policy issues, consider organizational problems and critique the nuances of working with an elected board of education.

The meetings are held the third Friday of each month. Originally each member had an opportunity to discuss past, current or future projects. With only four members this loose organizational style worked well enough and encouraged dialogue. As membership expanded, a little more structure became necessary, although we continue to get by without a written agenda.

Getting Started

The leadership of a community of almost any size would surely benefit from a similar group. The details may vary, but the concept and framework for a breakfast club are easily adaptable.

Starting a group like this would consist of someone taking the lead (the local school superintendent is a logical person to do so) and simply making a few telephone calls with an invitation for breakfast. Why breakfast? Typically lunch has a hectic feel to it. An early-day breakfast has its own style with few conflicts.

The size of the group does matter. If it gets too large, the informal feel and conversational tone are lost. The best range would be three or four members as a minimum and up to seven or eight as a maximum.

In any community, no matter the size, organizations can develop a sense of isolation. Yet the decisions and actions of every organization represented at the breakfast table affect other organizations. The breakfast meetings are important as a means of sharing information about a wide assortment of community issues—and for personal contact. Each organization takes turns hosting the breakfast meetings.

The value of personal communication among community leaders cannot be overemphasized. The discussions offer insight into the goals, struggles and obstacles other community institutions must address—much like those of the school system. With such a diverse group it’s impossible to agree on all issues, and sometimes our respective interests are in competition. For example, discussions about the need for tax incentives to recruit business and industrial development are guaranteed to be lively.

However, over the years group members found the regular meetings provided them with a strong sense of mutual support. The trust that emerges over time encourages differing viewpoints to be expressed without heated emotional overtones.

Some recent benefits for the school system have included the refinement of a strategy for a school tax levy election (which passed); the sharing of leads for acquiring land for a future elementary school; a discussion on local economic growth leading to a presentation by city and economic development leaders during a school board retreat; investigation of a self-insurance plan cooperative involving several participants; and a "teachers warehouse" partnership with the chamber of commerce.

The monthly breakfast provides our district with the best early-warning system for pro-active planning of any organization in town. For example, recent discussion involving planned commercial and residential development (well ahead of public announcements) provided the school district additional time to prepare for the impact.

Personal Value

For my part, the breakfast meetings offer an unparalleled opportunity to relentlessly present the case for public education and the local school system. Discussions range from the mundane to lively debates on local politics, community betterment plans and taxes. I benefit from the shared knowledge. I profit from the larger view of community. As the district superintendent I have the great advantage of personal relationships with key community leaders, which is a priceless asset.

Of course, rumor and gossip are never far from the doorstep of any public organization. In recent meetings we have been able to confirm discussions between the local university and the school district regarding the acquisition of land for a future school, affirm (and squelch) budget-reduction actions during recent economic stress.

At their best the breakfast meetings create a personal support system for all involved. Leadership carries some heavy burdens and this group can provide understanding and support. At the very least it improves understanding and communication among the individuals who lead key local organizations.

From oatmeal and bagels to election strategy, the breakfast club menu has served us well in Warrensburg. It’s a nutritious blend of fellowship and food.

Michael Jinks is superintendent of the Warrensburg R-VI School District, P.O. Box 638, Warrensburg, MO 64093. E-mail: mjinks@warrensburg.k12.mo.us