|IASB JOINT ANNUAL CONFERENCE|
2003 JOINT ANNUAL CONFERENCE
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
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
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
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
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