Today's guest blog is written by Douglas W. Huntley Ed.D., the superintendent of Queensbury Union Free School District in Queensbury, N.Y. He has served as a superintendent for New York schools for more than 20 years. As a researcher and practitioner in the area of public engagement and social media in public schools, he is a regular presenter at professional conferences and lecturer on college campuses.
School budget season is in full swing but is your community fully engaged in your budget conversation? While some districts are riding a strong tide of public support built on year-round, two-way communication with their communities via tools like social media, others are only pushing out one-way messages via the time honored, but highly ineffective annual budget newsletter. The dichotomy between these two different approaches to public engagement is as real as it is extreme.
Get a "Like" for Your School Budget
One of the most urgent issues facing educational leaders today is their communities' expectations for quick, accurate and timely information, provided instantly. Newsletters, brochures, fliers, letters, and backpack stuffers are slow, inefficient, costly and increasingly obsolete by today's communication standards. Even school leaders who also use email and school websites are failing to fully satisfy public expectations for fast, open and interactive communication. Strong community engagement can be reached in a number of different ways, but none is more instantly effective than adding the use of social media to a school district's communication plan.
Social media is normative among many demographics and community entities today. For example, business and industry have already embraced the use of social media in order to survive. From "liking" a designer clothing brand to following a local newspaper's "tweets," a large portion of your voting public is already engaging in interactive communication with the organizations and individuals they care about. Students of today may be accused of overusing social media as a means of communication and entertainment, but younger parents use social media almost exclusively as their communication staple, too. They are digital natives, having never experienced a world without the Internet. Grandparents are also becoming social media users at a rapid rate in order to communicate and share pictures and videos with their children and grandchildren.
More progressive districts have already embraced social media as integral to actively engaging their community in an ongoing, two-way dialogue about school issues such as the annual budget. By making social media an essential component of a district's communication plan, public schools can give the community both an individual and a collective voice in a true partnership for the education of their children.
Now is the Time to Engage
While the state and national economies seem to be picking up after several years of decline, full recovery is expected to be slow, especially for public schools. The ongoing competition for scarce resources will challenge school leaders well into the future, as taxpayers continue to be reluctant to support increases in school taxes. During fiscally challenging times, aligning public support is an essential responsibility for school leaders who want to be able to provide the high level of educational programming necessary to prepare students for colleges and careers.
Aligning public support begins with school leaders demonstrating and practicing high levels of transparency in all aspect of school business, especially in developing and presenting the annual budget. People want their school leaders to be open, candid and forthright. This can be achieved with many of the traditional communication methods (e.g., newsletters, brochures, fliers), but those methods do not truly engage the public. Social media engages: It lets people read, share and comment on district news, both positive and negative. It lets them respond to other people's comments and opinions on that news. This two-way, online conversation also gives school leaders the opportunity to clear up points of confusion while learning what issues are of greatest concern to their community. A few ideas for using social media to engage your public in a school budget conversation include:
- Post a "budget question of the day" on a social media page like Facebook and then provide the answer after your public has had a few hours to try to answer it themselves.
- Take your public's pulse on a key budget issue with a live-updated, budget-related poll question.
- Live-Tweet key elements of budget meetings so those who can't attend can still follow along.
- Post a photo of your polls opening on a social media page along with a reminder to vote and an invitation for people to submit their own pictures from the vote.
School leaders must recognize that relying only on traditional communication tools will lead to frustration on the part of today's voting public. People expect to communicate digitally, interactively and with immediacy. Stuffing backpacks may have a time and a place, but reaching our increasingly tech-savvy public now requires tech-savvy leaders who open their school gates to the use of social media, too.