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Monday, November 19, 2012

Door to Door

Setting aside political affiliations and philosophy, and sifting through the white noise of pundits scrambling to spin the results so there are somehow no losers whatsoever, what can we learn from the recent presidential elections that could benefit leaders in education?

Over a billion dollars was spent by the two major political parties on campaign advertisements during the past election cycle. But, if we simply take the round number of $300,000,000 dollars that one political operative was said to have wielded as head of a Super Pac, and examine the return on investment for those funds, it reveals that the party he supported had a miniscule net gain of one seat in congress after the ballots were counted. So, for all of the bluster and relentless campaign ads that were communicated over telephones, television, radio, and the internet, it would appear that the money evidently had little impact on altering the political landscape and power. Instead, several political scientists have advanced the perception that the difference may have been attributed to what has been referred to as, “grass roots advocacy” and efforts to get the vote out. Perhaps the most simplistic explanation is that “going door to door” leveraged more of a difference than saturating communication channels with messages that were conveyed with a blunt force similar to hammering a nail in wood.

School districts may be guilty of the same strategy when presenting their annual operating budgets to the public. Leaders cannot adopt the pattern that American tourists abroad may exercise when experiencing difficulty conversing with foreigners unable to speak English. Speaking slower and louder, or adding a vowel to each English word, will not make the message any clearer or more easily understood. No matter how you dress up the data, how large the font, how fancy the graphs,… there remains a key variable often absent in this time worn equation. That is, the personal and individual exchange of information.

Exchange is a critical word here. Budget newsletters are scattered throughout the district and assumed to be sufficient to explain the financial status of the school system. But, such a plan lacks the opportunity for people to respond. Yes, I realize that every school district in the state conducts a required budget hearing, during which the public can review the data and ask questions or raise issues. That said, how many people actually attend these budget hearings? I once worked in a school district with a budget exceeding a quarter of a billion dollars and there were fewer than two dozen members of the public in attendance. Sadly, that is not an unusual ratio of members of the public to dollars in the budget. Yet, many, many more people subsequently cast votes in the budget referendum that soon follows. It’s no longer enough to just mail out the budget newsletter, present data at the budget hearing, and assume people will do “the right thing” and support the district’s budget because it helps kids.  The current fiscal constraints have changed the reality of many people, and, as a result, their priorities.

If you accept that education is ultimately based on the dynamic interaction between teachers and learners then you can recognize the value of relationships. This view should extend between the school and members of the community. Therefore, while mass distribution of budget newsletters offer concrete data for the decision making process among voters, door-to-door personal visits by school administration officials and board of education members are more likely to solicit the faith and confidence of voters. That method enabled one political party to harvest gains in the just concluded election. That method allowed us to increase the odds of our passage of a 12.47% tax levy increase last May and sustain our progress and viability as a school system reaching for the future.

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