By Jennifer Wohlleb
School boards can’t spend every dollar their district receives through local, state or federal taxes in any way they would like. Different sources of funds come with different limitations.
Board members know this, but they shouldn’t assume that the public understands the intricacies of school finance such as this.
PHOTO: Brad Hughes, KSBA’s director of member support/communications services, answers a questions at KSBA’s Winter Symposium during his session on simply and effectively communicating financial issues to a school district’s various constituencies.
“Even for a veteran school board member, when you are talking about school finance, it’s good to break it down as much as you can because other people in the audience – not just reporters – aren’t going to get it,” said Brad Hughes, KSBA’s director of Member Support/Communications Services.
Hughes led a session on communicating about school finance to non-education audiences during last month’s annual KSBA Winter Symposium in Louisville.
“The board meeting is an opportunity to educate people about critical issues and some of these things in there about revenue sources, about where you are expending your money, especially as you get into tax time, fall into that area,” he said.
He used the annual setting of the school tax rate in the fall as an example of an important teaching moment.
“This fall, 93 of your member boards around the state took the full 4 percent revenue (increase),” he said. “The biggest thing that people don’t get is what that 4 percent means. Many people believe that 4 percent is a 4 percent tax increase. And I can guarantee you that reporters who are going to be writing about your tax rate decisions are going to write down if you took a 4-cent tax increase, they are going to write that you took a 4 percent increase, or if you took 4 percent more revenue, they are going to say it’s a 4 percent tax increase.”
Hughes said the responsibility to communicate finance issues simply and effectively extends beyond the monthly school board meeting. Boards also need to reach out to school councils, parent groups, community organizations and even school district staff.
“With any element of communication, you have the responsibility, not that they get everything, but that they understand the message you are trying to communicate,” he said. “If you have a situation where you are passing a nickel tax or are having to reduce staff, or you’re having to shut down a school, if you limit yourself to presentations at the board meetings, you are missing key audiences. School councils, those folks have their own circle of influence; the parents on the council, teachers – every one of them has a circle of influence that’s broader than what you have right there.”
When it comes to the actual presentation, Hughes shared some tips to make sure the message the audience hears is the one the presenter is making.
“When you are doing finance handouts when you are going to the Rotary Club or the Chamber of Commerce, which should be a target audience every year, realize that these are not CPAs,” he said. “So whatever you are going to leave them with, whatever they are going to take away, needs to be as simple as possible. I recommend that you have a one-page handout unless you have something more complex to explain.”
He encouraged board teams to use specific examples to illustrate a point. For example, instead of simply outlining federal and state budget cuts, discuss how those cuts require the district to increase local taxes to pay for mandated but unfunded items, such as transportation.
Some other tips:
• Bold key points in handouts
• Include contact information
• Keep videos, which can be effective, to less than five minutes
• Use student images and examples frequently
•Make this information available online
Hughes encouraged board members and superintendents to plan their message by boiling it down to three main points:
•The bottom line, with key numbers
• Supportive explanation of that data
• The impact those numbers will have on the taxpayers or students
He encouraged board teams to work with their local media to get their story out.
“If you’ve got fiscal decisions coming that are going to stir up your employees, or are going to stir up your community, or just because you are going to take the 4 percent for the sixth consecutive year, call a reporter up, get them to do an advance story where probably you’re the only one doing the talking and get your points out there,” Hughes said. “That’s part of educating the taxpaying public.”
And if the media gets something wrong, don’t be afraid to let them know.
“You’ve got to make sure the media understands that accurate reporting is something that is important to you,” he said. “More importantly, if they confuse a financial issue like taxes or budgeting or personnel, there is going to be another story down the road. If they got it wrong in the first story, they will get it wrong in the next one and good luck trying to convince the reporter to change something by the time they get to the third story they are writing about it.”