A Reality Check and Trends and Issues for 2011

A Quick Snapshot by One of NSPRA’s Leading Members

“It’s brutal.”  That’s what one of our leading NSPRA members recently wrote. “Last year, we cut nearly 200 positions and our communication staff has also been reduced to “a bare bones team.” “Yet, the demands for our services have increased. I told my superintendent and my staff that there are less than half the people to meet these demands, there are still only 24 hours a day, and sleep is not over-rated.”  Now before you paint a broad brush stroke of whining to these statements. Read on.

“Today our big projects include developing a meaningful public engagement process for this bloody task and internal process for making decisions that keeps all senior staff on the same page, is clear on how decisions link directly to our guiding principles, and minimizes politics.”  But wait there’s more. “Through it all we’re determined to maintain proper perspective. So we have recalibrated our sense of gratitude and thankfulness. We’re grateful to have good jobs giving us more challenging opportunities to showcase our strategic skills. And we’re thankful for the good people we call our colleagues.  Anyone can be good leader in the good times. We’re truly earning our stripes in today’s environment and I know we’ll all come out on the other side better people, stronger leaders and armed with a whole new set of skills that will make us more valuable to our organizations and the industry.” (And some folks still don’t understand what a top school communication professional does for a school district.)  A tip of our hat and special thanks to Janelle Asmus, APR, from the Adams 12 Five Star Schools in Colorado for reminding us of the role we should play during these struggling fiscal times.

Trends and Issues for 2011

With the probable accuracy of your local weather forecaster, here are just six issues/trends/action topics I see percolating in 2011 calling for communication strategies and skills.

  • Class Size Discussions

For years, educators have been advocating for smaller class sizes for all the right reasons.  It is one of the more expensive practices in education and now it is butting heads with bleak budget forecasts. Something has to give.  Some recent studies have indicated that smaller class sizes have not produced greater achievement, but anyone who has ever taught knows how effective smaller class sizes can be. It’s a controversial issue for teachers, parents and state legislators. By engaging teachers and parents, decision-makers can foster a better understanding of the ramifications of class size decisions.  Many national studies have been completed.  Next week’s NSPRA This Week will carry some resources related to the class size discussion. You  can also use the ERS Research Gateway on the NSPRA website to find other helpful resources in less than two minutes. Learn what others are saying about class size as you begin developing your communication strategy on this inevitable budget-related topic.

  • Federal/State/Local Balancing Act

In the past few years, the rise of federal and state government action through legislation has been more prevalent than in the past.  The ramifications of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), state assessments, Race to the Top competition, class-size legislation and the development of core curriculum standards are all driven by state and federal leaders’ reaction to performance gaps in k-12 education. We are beginning to see more concern and even action at the district and school levels in wanting more clout over their own destiny.  The increase of charter schools is just one example.  Our prediction is that this shift will continue as long as local advocates can sustain their will and vigor to influence decisions on education.

  • Overhauling  Budget Communication

Most systems are facing major budget-cutting decisions. Many systems still do inadequate to poor jobs in explaining their budgets to their staff and community. Big numbers mean little when the real-life impact of those numbers are never mentioned. In this year, you will need communication plans for the development of the budget. The passage of your local operating budgets will call for the attention normally given to the passage of bond and other financial elections prevalent in many states.  People will not support anything they do not understand. And most taxpayers do not understand their local budgets except for the amount they pay each in school taxes.  NSPRA will continue providing examples of budget strategies and tactics in the year ahead.

  • Accountability

Accountability at all levels will continue to be at the top of issues in 2011. Accountability through transparency builds trust and credibility in school leaders. Even if you have the best budget presentation in your state, it won’t do much for you unless you have earned the credibility and trust of your staff and community. Do all you can to stress authentic engagement by being transparent and visible with the leaders in your community. Also, prove through your communication efforts that your schools are performing well. Make sure your community knows your students are learning and sound fiscal decisions are being made. Remember, it is also an accountability measure to prove to your community that performance at all levels is a key characteristic of your schools. I often say that most communication programs cost each homeowner less than $10.00 per year of their multi-hundred or multi-thousand dollar tax bill. That $10.00 seems little to pay to demonstrate how the remaining hundreds or thousands of dollars are being spent on the children and adult programs in their community.

  •  Finding More Advocates for Education

Another trend we see developing in 2011 is the use of advocacy groups and coalitions to help educators “inform” state lawmakers about the priority to place on education programs and funding. Educators can make their mark, but too often state lawmakers see such attempts as self-serving, protect-my-job measures. Research shows that the pressure of sustained public opinion drives many decisions by legislators. A recent story in The Washington Post went into the archives of President Truman who was battling the mid-term election swing to the new majority of the opposition’s party in both the House and Senate.  A memo from those archives noted, “The history of every administration shows that in the final analysis, a president has but one weapon — public opinion.”

We have seen school funding success stories around the country where groups of citizens organize efforts to influence state legislators on education issues and funding. In some communities, local residents seek the assistance of groups like Stand For Children or the Public Education Network (PEN) to help carry their message and clout to state leaders.

I have often said that communities are known by the schools they keep. In 2011, school leaders need to lead the way of making the connections and enabling groups to build more community support to alert state legislators about the priorities of voting taxpayers in their states. NSPRA is now developing an advocacy kit that should be ready to assist educators with this important task by this Spring.

  • Strategies for Social Networking

  • Social networking fills the agenda and content pages of most workshops, magazines, and journals in communication. Rightfully so, as it is the fastest changing area in our profession.  The array of tech tools we use will continue to change. You need to keep on top of them to see which fit the objectives of your program.  You can capture many more friends of your district through Facebook and Twitter. What are your expectations of what these “friends” will do for you?  Do you want them to become more involved in building support through engagement, or to develop a better understanding of key issues, or generally begin building a positive opinion about your schools? Without a program expectation for a possible next step, your social networking program could be compared to the recreational fishing practice of “catch and release.”

    Rich Bagin, APR

    NSPRA Executive Director


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