A 2011 study of 195 Pennsylvania school districts found a significant improvement in districts’ academic and financial outcomes when the board increased its social capital. (Saatcioglu, et al.) Fleets of consultants stand ready to teach boards how to improve their internal bonding. The study found a comparable impact from bridging the world of the board with the worlds of the professionals and community members that they serve. It’s time to turn the spotlight on the builder of these bridges: the board liaison.
Different Structures for Different Districts
An engineer designing a suspension bridge over the San Francisco Bay faces a different job description than does her counterpart constructing a footbridge across a local stream. Their size and complexity call for drastically different tools. So, too, will the strategy for building bridges differ for Los Angeles Unified School District (student population: 621,414) or Coffee Creek School District (student population: 10).
Small districts with the leanest scaffolding usually have a school board liaison to the city council and the superintendent. The board liaison might attend some or all of the city council meetings, work closely with the PTO president, meet regularly with officers of the city council, attend town functions arranged by the city council, and arrange for city councilor participation in school board meetings and events – whether they be routine visitors or scheduled featured speakers. Small-town dynamics have the board liaison on a first-name basis with parents, teachers and administrators without needing layers of middle management between them. In Clay Creek, IN (serving fewer than 15,000 students), at least one liaison from each school attends every school board meeting, and the board liaison meets regularly with the principal and the PTO president.
In a large district, the work of the board liaison might not extend to the parents and principals in the community. Such districts often have a staff position or a volunteer committee that keep in touch with social service agencies on individual cases, even intervening to translate so that non-English-speaking parents clearly understand and convey messages to teachers and administrators. Some parents might volunteer to meet with the liaison to convey concerns. The Board Liaison might then chair and convene regular meetings of such personnel that the board conveys its concerns to these front-line workers and takes their priorities back to the board.
The shape of the structure will vary. In Fairfax County, VA (student population: 188,000), the school board liaison chairs a committee of one to four volunteers from each school, typically the PTO president and vice-president, the PTO’s own board liaison and an at-large volunteer.
Some small communities also need these mediating structures, especially if they’re spread out geographically. On Revillagigedo Island, the Alaskan town of Ketchikan has 8,050 residents, but its school district includes another 13,477 people in rural communities on nearby islands accessible only by boat. The board liaison of the district’s school board heads a committee of community liaisons to the board.
Whatever the structures in place, the golden rule for any board liaison is “risk overcommunicating.” The need for communication gives rise to the role of the liaison in the first place. The risk of appearing at “too many” events or making “too many” necessary phone calls is negligible. Rare is the headline that reads: “Concerned School Board Member Annoys Mayor.” However, the risk of letting needs from any of the parties involved go unheard for months at a time is great. Suspicions mount, coalitions form and soon there’s an intractable political problem that saps the goodwill between the board and the district’s stakeholders. Local journalists leap on the story.
To keep communication predictable and positive, the board liaison has to have a plan. The details differ, but it is her duty to establish protocols that answer basic questions about how the board and its partners will communicate: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? Will joint meetings take place annually? Will the head of the city council meet monthly with the board liaison? How often will members of one body attend meetings and functions of the other? What will their role be when they do? Will two bodies co-host a community forum? Will any members in the wider conversation request a formal reply from a leader or an entire committee? Details will differ with local culture, but it’s negligence to assume that messages will “just flow naturally.”
Three pitfalls could sabotage the community engagement engendered by the work of the board liaison.
- Scheduled, formal communications could become a substitute for other avenues of citizen involvement in board business. The work of the board liaison is no substitute for open meetings. For purely social and even logistical reasons, some stakeholders will be able to speak at a public school board meeting, but not attend a smaller appointment or meeting. Restricting the flow of information to the channels instituted by the liaison would break open-meeting laws while creating a climate of elitism. The two avenues must remain in a relationship of “both/and,” not “either/or.”
- The school board or the mayor/superintendent/PTO president must not try to control the other through the board liaison’s communication channels. The board liaison and his partners in other organizations serve more like telephone operators than supervisors. If the meetings that he arranges become just another forum for political power plays, it will undermine the very community engagement they were designed to bolster. The board still forms policy; the schools still implement them.
- The wrong person could fill the role. The board member who is “successful” by other measures might not be effective in this role; it requires a distinct skill set. The board liaison must be affable, positive and pragmatic. Consider the difference between studying your craft and performing it: Someone who is energized by designing a strategic plan is often utterly bored by the details. It is one thing to study the intersection of demography and architecture in new urbanism, but quite another to become an urban planner who spends all day courting corporate sponsors for a football stadium.
The school board liaison plays an essential role in creating a positive spirit of community engagement. The fragile trust between the board, the city, the school staff and the community is the lifeblood of any school board. Guard it well.