Anyone who thinks that being a school trustee just means going to a couple of board meetings a month clearly hasn’t been a trustee or ever spoken to one. It’s hard work involving multiple board and committee meetings, school visits, and hours of reading, listening and debating. Unfortunately, much of this work goes unnoticed outside the boardroom and that’s a critical problem for many boards.
Ask the average citizen who their school board members are, let alone what they do, and you’ll most likely be met with a blank stare. Even those adults directly connected with the school system – parents, teachers and even many school administrators – have almost no contact with trustees, and therefore little understanding of the very important role of the school board. If they are aware of the board it is more often because of something negative, such as budget cuts, school closures, or strikes.
Unless there is something directly impacting them, most citizens don’t have the time or interest to attend board meetings. Some trustees might think that once elected the community trusts the board to just quietly go about its business, but this could only work if there were no issues, no shortages, and everyone was happy – and when does that ever happen?
Boards that ignore this awareness gap do so at their own peril. When the community doesn’t know what a board does it won’t be easy to garner support when needed. I’m not just talking about getting yourself re-elected as a trustee. I’m talking about the existence of boards themselves. The relevance of elected school boards is a frequently occurring question throughout Canada and the United States. School trustee elections usually have very low voter turnout, sometimes in the single digits. This is one of the key reasons why the Province of Quebec has given notice that it intends to do away with elected school boards. There were no elected trustees for a while in New Brunswick and the question continues to pop up in most provincial governments from year to year.
More importantly there is the relationship between community engagement and student achievement. If every community was the same there would be no need for local boards. A one-size-fits-all, top-down model of governance from the provincial capital would do. But we know that all communities are not the same and a cookie cutter approach to educational governance would not reflect the uniqueness and diversity that exists from community to community. It is precisely for that reason that trustees must be elected and elected locally. Local representation is the cornerstone of democracy and arguably, school trustees are the most local of all representatives. You are elected by your communities because you are from your community. You are the community. But to maintain this essence of community representation it is critical that you stay connected and continue to engage with all segments of the community. They need to hear from you and you need to hear from them. This isn’t just a nice public relations gesture. It is the core of what being an elected representative is. There is a direct line between student achievement in your community and the understanding and connection between you and the members in your community. To assume that you fully understood the community’s hopes and aspirations for education when you were elected and that you have nothing new to learn from your constituents – nor they from you – would be both foolhardy and wrong. Once elected you represent all those with and without students in your schools. It’s a big job, and quite frankly, more important than a lot of other things that happen around some board tables.
So what’s a board to do? The first step is to get out of the board room more often. I don’t mean more school visits or moving the board meetings around the community (although that’s not a bad idea). I’m talking about having an actual plan for community engagement that is developed as part of the board’s annual strategic plan. Make community engagement a strategic priority for the board. Identify goals and activities. Assign responsibilities and develop measures to monitor progress. You do this for student learning and your district budget. You can and should do it for community engagement as well.
Some ideas to consider:
- Set up a schedule to attend and get on the agenda of municipal/regional board meetings at regular intervals throughout the year.
- Identify significant community groups and ask to attend a meeting to make a presentation about the board’s priorities and key activities.
- Get to know your MLAs, not just to badger them for more funding, but to actually get to know them. Invite them to board get-togethers. Take them to lunch. Attend their events.
- Get closer to local business leaders and their associations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, and Rotary Club. Small and large business leaders need help to understand the vital link between education and the future success of their business.
- Attend community events, not just as individuals standing in the crowd, but as part of the event. Carry the board banner in the next community parade. Set up an information tent at the next big picnic or sports tournament. Look for opportunities to connect, share and listen.
- Get to know your local news editors and reporters. I don’t mean just invite them to a board meeting. Meet with them. Help them develop stories of interest about education in the community. There are tons of great things going on in your schools but you can’t sit back and hope the reporters will find them.
- Talk to your provincial trustee association. They can provide communications expertise, training and success stories from other boards.
These are just a few ideas that I have seen work successfully in school districts across the country. There are many more (and I am hoping that you will share some of the things your own board has done in the comment section below).
Not too long ago the catchphrase for the National School Boards Association in the States, and several trustee associations in Canada was that the key work of school boards is improving student achievement through community engagement. All boards work constantly on student achievement but the community engagement part has been harder to achieve. The bottom line is that you cannot just quietly go about the good work you do as a board. You have to proactively engage your community continually, not just at election time. You have to tell your board’s story and share your board’s glory. If you don’t who will?
Stephen Hansen (firstname.lastname@example.org)