By David Baird
KSBA Interim Executive Director
At a regional educational cooperative’s recent Legislative Day, several House and Senate members talked with area superintendents about the 2014 General Assembly. To no one’s surprise, there was significant discussion about school finances, the state’s revenue picture and the local board resolutions urging lawmakers to restore funding that has been cut over the last four or five years for several important K-12 programs.
The exchange also featured a healthy dialogue about relationship building. Several legislators said they appreciate regular information-sharing from the superintendents in their districts. However, one legislator said that while he heard from his superintendents on a regular basis, he had not been contacted by a single local board member from the school systems within his electoral boundaries.
Clearly, this is not the case statewide. I’ve heard frequently from members who write letters to their senators and representatives, send emails or buttonhole them at public functions. But there is an important lesson in this one legislator’s experience: The board member voice is vital – and expected.
Board members and legislators have much in common. Many share the same constituencies of voters and taxpayers. They are both elected at the local level. They hear many of the same citizen concerns about services, needs, taxes and spending. They are subject to the whim of the electorate; most return to office but some are shown the door when voters want change.
As board members, you should create opportunities to introduce yourself to any legislators who have not met you. Identify yourself as someone who lives in their district and as a school board member. Board member-legislator conversations about funding are important. But it’s even more important to build a collegial relationship in which open, honest and professional discussions occur.
Make contacts on a regular basis. An email prior to any legislative session is good, but its impact can grow with each follow-up conversation or other contact.
These “messages from home” can relay specific stories of how funding shortages have impacted your school district. Tell them about the loss of teachers, support staff, programs and services, cuts to arts and sciences, larger class sizes, no teacher pay raises, deteriorating textbooks, elimination of band programs and reduced help for struggling students caused by the elimination or reduction of Extended School Services. And don’t forget the impact of less professional development at a time when Senate Bill 1 (Unbridled Learning) for accountability is being implemented.
KSBA is helping to foster these discussions. Our Winter Symposium in Louisville, Dec. 6-7 will feature a legislative panel and an advocacy session. Our Kids First Advocacy event in Frankfort, Feb. 19-20 will create the opportunity to flood legislative galleries and committee meeting rooms with board members and superintendents.
But when it comes to the greatest degree of impact and influence, regular interaction between school board members and their legislators carries the clout of what Kentucky’s public education system needs when the gavels fall in the House and Senate next month.