Board-Savvy Superintendent                            Page 28


A Message for Patrons: Schools as an Investment

One of the most interesting aspects of our firm’s research work on behalf of public school districts over two decades is being able to track the ebb and flow of typical patron opinion regarding district performance and the oh-so-hard-to-measure characteristics of the district/patron relationship.

Not surprisingly, during more stable financial times, patrons had a much more laissez-faire attitude toward their local school district. In other words, if the district thought something was a good idea, it probably was, and we — the patrons — should support that. Only the passionate few thought it necessary to engage in a debate, whether it be over curriculum, class sizes or costs.

Over the past four to five years, but particularly in the last 12 to 18 months, it’s clear that laissez-faire has become passé.

The majority of school district patrons who typically paid scant attention (unless it involved their son or daughter) to the goings-on at your central office have become aggressively more interested in one aspect of school district life: What are you doing with my money?

What Money Buys

As everyone working in public education well understands, money is always a topic of interest among patrons. It’s just that the tone of patron commentary has become more strident and less supportive. For more patrons, the default reaction today appears to be to doubt, according to the research trends we have seen.

Not only is the tone more combative, it’s also more confused. Patron comments today include frequent suggestions for changes to the basic funding of schools, school bonds, operating levies and the like that are more appropriate for communicating to their legislator than to the school district itself.

The end result is frustration for districts and patrons alike, which is further confirmation that school finance is a topic that will never be fully understood in the community. Recognizing that fact, it makes sense to focus more communications on what patrons’ money is “buying them” than on trying to turn each resident into a junior school district CFO.

Some considerations:

  • Where are you getting the same (or better) results for less money? Review energy performance contracts, food services and other areas to ensure you have favorable terms. It shows you are uncovering every rock to find savings. Just make sure you focus on the savings first and the details second.
  • How are you lengthening the useful life of current facilities? Taking preventive maintenance steps that seem mundane to you will show quite clearly that you recognize each building in your inventory represents an investment by your patrons. Show them what you are doing to protect that investment.
  • What are you doing to find other revenue? The “find the money elsewhere” comment is becoming more prevalent in our research results. So turn that on its ear by showing situations where you may be generating revenue. Catering services through culinary programs, facility rental fees and other modest moneymakers suggest you are, in fact, looking for money elsewhere. The effort is as much if not more important than the amount of bottom-line bump that such programs might offer the district.
  • What is the district’s real financial impact on its community and to the students it serves? The old saw about increasing property values should be supplemented with real, documented evidence of what a strong school district means in terms of jobs, payroll that finds its way into the local economy and the earning potential of graduates — a portion of whom will undoubtedly stay in the area and add to the tax base.

An excellent example of this, albeit on a grander scale, has been done annually by the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City, Mo. (A summary of their findings is available at www.csdgkc.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/2012-2013-Annual-Report.pdf.)

Repositioning school taxes as an investment, rather than an expense, requires thinking more like a homeowner and less like a school district leader. Documenting where you are stretching dollars, saving money, finding new ways to supplement the bottom line and making the most of what you have will align your message with the reality faced by those who pay your school district’s bills.

Ken DeSieghardt is CEO/partner of Patron Insight in Stilwell, Kan. He is the author of School Communication That Works. E-mail: ken@patroninsight.com. Twitter: @KDeSieghardt