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July/August 2011

Conference attendance is a district investment

The question for this issue is answered by Linda Dawson, IASB director of editorial services.

Question: As a newly elected board member, I want to show the community that I am fiscally responsible. Spending public dollars to go to the Joint Annual Conference may appear that I am not. So before I decide, can you tell me what I will get for the money the district spends and how I can justify this expense to the community?

Answer: These questions come up routinely from both board members and the media. They are good questions and can be easily answered if you are prepared to share what you saw, learned and did at the conference.

First, be clear about why you want to attend.

Many district mission statements include language about helping students to become “lifelong learners.” That means looking for opportunities to increase knowledge and skills to do their job more effectively. The same lifelong learning mission should apply to board members as well.

No one is born knowing how to be a good school board member. It is learned and refined over years by: 1) board room experience; and 2) professional development.

Professional development is a great way for board members to show their commitment to their role as the community’s voice and representative in local school governance. Whether you are a new board member or a veteran, you can significantly increase your knowledge and skills, as well as expand your perspective on public education, by attending school board workshops, conferences and other leadership training events.    

 Many opportunities exist to do this, and no other single event offers the variety and depth of board training available at the Joint Annual Conference. It has hundreds of panel sessions, workshops and exhibits to choose from. Topics include school finance, community engagement, student discipline, technology, board policy development, legislative updates, special education, consolidation, school law, and other vital issues.

Justifying the expense of the conference depends on how much effort and time you put into and get out of it.

The expense to the district for your attendance will be amply repaid if you select and attend conference events that improve your awareness of issues and trends affecting your schools and expand your understanding of the board’s governance role and responsibilities.

Many veteran board members would term their conference attendance as a “wise investment” in their school district. That is a major reason why 76 percent of the state’s 868 school districts attended the conference in 2010.

In fact, school finance is one of the most popular panel topics. Presentations will be made on energy cost savings, healthcare and labor costs, public school funding, strategic planning, property tax revenue, bonds and debt financing, and collective bargaining.

The variety and depth of these presentations and materials is also why many districts send their entire board, top administrators and board secretaries.

Cost of advance registration is $360 per person for the three days. Meals, travel and hotel costs are extra. But conference hotel rates are very reasonable, ranging from $154 to $177 per night at 10 downtown hotels. To reduce these costs, some members carpool while others use Amtrak. Choosing economical restaurants or meal venues can also help members stay within their district budget limits. Check your district guidelines regarding daily meal, travel and lodging allowances.

Justifying the expense also requires each board member to share what they saw, learned and did at the conference.

By using IASB’s online conference planner, you and your district colleagues can develop a strategy of what you plan to attend and who will report out from each event. By sharing these plans with the media and your community before attending the conference, you can reduce the chance for surprise or negative reaction after the conference.

After the conference, you may also want to dedicate a portion of a board meeting to give each person the opportunity to share what they did and learned. These reports should be specific about the sessions attended, what was learned and how that knowledge might be used to become a more effective, responsible and efficient school board.

To help with this process, IASB has prepared sample news releases for pre- and post-conference use. These samples are not prescriptive. District officials are encouraged to edit or add their own comments or data to suit their purpose and situation. You also may want to schedule interviews with your local media, instead of relying on the news releases alone.  

 Both releases, posted on IASB’s Members-Only website, are available in Word format and contain language that allows your district to specify who attended, how much the district spent and how it fits into the district budget and professional development goals. Suggested quotes are provided, but districts also are welcome to make optional remarks.

So before deciding whether you should attend this year’s Joint Annual Conference, please consider this: view the conference not as an expense, but as an investment for the board, the district and the community.

And we hope to see you Nov. 18-20 in Chicago.

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