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Make Your Budget Communications Effort Personal

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By Rich Bagin, APR, Executive Director of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA)

We often say that our schools deal with two of our community's two most precious elements: its children and its money.

And in approximately 80% of school districts throughout America, it is now narrowed down just to money as many taxpayers forget about their obligation to provide adequate funding for schools when they do not have children attending their local schools. Add the dilemma of today's slow recovering economy, high unemployment rates, and the criticism being leveled at "government" employees, and you step right into the sticky situations that today's school leaders are experiencing.

Communicating the need for complex budget issues has never been easy, but the current climate raises the bar in building better understanding and support of the budget issues.

Once again school leaders must be proactive in their communication efforts. This is no time to let your critics to take the initiative to seize public opinion and fill social media with mis-information and half-truths while you spend most of your effort reacting to their false hoods about your budget.

One of my favorite examples is the story about a rumor that circulated saying that the current superintendent was recently given an outrageous car allowance. Critics in the community gave the story great attention through email and blogs. They used it as a touchstone of the type of waste that runs rampant in this school district. In fact, the school district's own community budget survey found the car allowance as the top area to cut from the budget. The sad fact was that the superintendent in this district did not have a car allowance. There was nothing to cut, even though the rumor carried weight with hundreds of vocal critics throughout that system.

In some respects, this is one school crisis that everyone understands. All of your constituents have been hit in some way by the economy — some worse than others. But everyone is affected. Our connection to schools can become an opportunity to prove that "we're all in this together" and to show how we need one another to protect our true bottom line — the education of all students.

Consider the following strategies and tactics to build more support for your school budgets:

  • Engage staff and local leaders and carry through with the theme that we're all in this together. Establish a blue-ribbon task force to help your district look at ways to increase revenue, save money, and understand the impact of budget cuts in their community. We have seen this work extremely well in many communities. Participants "get real" very quickly and pet projects or cuts are often dropped when people understand the big picture. Make sure the task force has a communication plan and guidelines. If you can't get it going for this year, start it early for the next budget season.

  • Develop key messages advocating education. First, take the high road. Remind your audiences that education is critically important to our economy. It may seem too global at first, but the reality is that we have all the research on our side as education is the hub of economic progress. Strongly position the message of that education is critically important to our local, state, and national economy.

  • Show that we're all in this together. Use the over-arching theme that our schools, staff, parents, community, and state leaders are all in this together. Now is not the time to be divisive. Emotions run high during cutbacks and sensitivity must be heightened when you create your messages. Remember, language like essential and non-essential personnel always creates an emotional ripple with both internal and external audiences. People ask, "If they're non-essential, why did we need them anyway?"

  • Don't assume anything. Most residents do not understand terms like step movements, special ed mandates, blended education, and more. Don't get lost in the weeds when nearly 80% of your community wants to know how much an increase will be needed and why. Also demonstrate that programmatic cuts have already taken place. It is difficult to keep a complex budget simple, but that is what is called for when you communicate your budget.

  • Tap into your strengths. Communities that perceive local schools — and their leaders — to be open, credible communicators will find ways to help their schools succeed in the toughest times. Schools that can't find ways to draw on stockpiled goodwill will find the going tougher when it comes to communicating financial issues.

  • Realize that you probably need a targeted communication plan, dedicated to addressing financial issues. Budget debates are no different from any other special event or initiative — they are campaigns that need planning and monitoring.

  • Use a number of different techniques to collect feedback, carry messages, and buttress key ideas for a successful financial-communication effort.

  • On your webpage set up a spot to clarify the misinformation that might be floating around your community. Stay with the facts; no need to enrage critics with banter that they will use against you. Remembering the car allowance example above, just note that the superintendent of schools does not receive a car allowance. Publicize that this budget feature is on your website.

Making Budget Communication Personal

Some professional communication advice on how to personalize your budget communication efforts includes:

  • Do focus messages on the economy but also weave in messages about individual children and neighborhood schools. For most people, perceptions about school budget issues will flow from the ways in which they personalize the issues.

  • Do not list proposed cuts generically, such as miscellaneous art materials. If planned cuts mean that you will no longer give art supplies to high school students, say it.

  • Do develop communication tactics targeted to key audiences, including parents, staff, students, elected officials, business leaders, seniors, and more. Encourage staff to help communicate and reinforce vital information. Arm them with prepared answers to frequent questions, resources for more information, and training on how to communicate and build understanding and support.

  • Do use plain language and images to talk about finances and numbers. Stay away from suspicion-arousing jargon and acronyms that taxpayers won't understand. Use everyday words with concrete meanings, such as costs and revenues. Don't bloat copy for simple terms, such as light and heat, with puffed up mumbo jumbo like environmental management or HVAC consumption.

  • Don't use millions.

  • Do create images that people can visualize and relate to: cost per child, cost per household, cost per classroom and so on. Explain costs in terms of an average taxpayer. Example: Less than the price of two movie tickets.

Your communication management and engagement activities will make or break your relationships with staff, parents, board members, business leaders, the media, and the taxpayers in your community. Effective communication will keep your reputation intact and demonstrate that your district is in good hands during these stormy times.

It is time to be proactive!

And I always ask, if school leaders do not do it, who will?

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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