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Boards seek help connecting with the public

Questions of how to connect with their communities brought board members out early Sunday morning to meet with members of the Illinois chapter of the National School Public Relations Association over coffee and conversation.

Those attending were asked to vote with dots for the topics they wanted the most help with, and overwhelmingly the top two picks were how to learn what your community is thinking and how to keep the community "in the loop." But an additional message that came through loud and clear: school boards need to do a better job educating the community about the nature and function of board work, as well as the constraints under which districts often operate.

Barbara Banker, director of community services for Woodstock CUSD 200, said surveys, either by phone or written, are one way to find out what the community thinks about a specific issue or a variety of topics.

"People come to meetings with their own agendas," Banker said about relying on topics brought to the board meetings by concerned citizens. "They're not always a majority of the community."

A survey allows the board to ask questions on a number of topics and can be fairly inexpensive if done by district staff. But, she cautioned, if there is doubt or skepticism in a community, hiring an outside firm will lend objectivity and credibility to the process.

Other methods of taking the community's pulse, she said, include using small focus groups or convening larger numbers of groups in a true community engagement process. Both of these ideas work best with outside facilitators, she added.

Larry Ascough, assistant superintendent school/community relations in Elgin U-46, built on Banker's presentation by talking about keeping the community "in the loop."

It's important to build and maintain on-going relationships, Ascough said, not just when you need friends, like when you want to pass a referendum, but all the time.

"They help you survive the bad times and flourish in the good times," he said.

Identifying all the "publics" is the first step in keeping them informed, according to Ascough. Once you do that, you can identify key leaders within each "public" and recruit them as volunteers to help keep others informed. These community links become an important communications tool.

"You're not asking them to be a cheerleader for the district," Ascough said. "Just enlist their support for public education."

One of the most important groups to keep "in the loop," he said, is realtors, because they "can sell your district ... either up or down the river."

Other topics discussed during the 90-minute session included forming partnerships in the community, running a successful referendum and dealing with protest groups.

Julie Armentrout, director of community relations for Glenbard THSD 97 in Glen Ellyn, said if districts would do a better job communicating board constraints they might be able to stave off some public relations problems. However, she also pointed out that there is a huge difference between malcontents who show up at numerous board meetings to complain and well-organized protest groups.

"The first will go away eventually," she said, "but the second want to control your district."

Other school public relations panelists were Sharon Henderson, former director of community relations with Hinsdale CCSD 181; Stacy Holland, director of community relations for Lincoln-Way CHSD 210 in New Lenox; and Kristine Houser, assistant director of school/community relations for District U-46 in Elgin.

Chapter members also staffed a counseling center throughout the conference. The center offered one-on-one advice as well as the opportunity to sit in on six different public relations discussions including award winning publications; controlling the board meeting when the public is unhappy; introducing a new superintendent to the community; what works to run a referendum; sampling public opinion; and building an effective key communicator network.



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