Disconnect between school leaders, legislators will mean lost opportunities in 2016
Kentucky School Advocate
By Brad Hughes
KSBA Director of Member Support/Communications Services
It was a moment that was, for me, at first surprising, but upon further reflection, downright astonishing. It was even a bit embarrassing.
At a recent regional educational cooperative meeting, a state legislator, talking with superintendents about communications between educators and lawmakers, made the following statement:
“I’ve never been contacted by a single school board member. Never.”
This comment didn’t come from one of the General Assembly’s graybeards of lengthy service, but it was uttered by a two-term state representative whose district includes four school systems. That’s a minimum of 20 school board members he says he’s never heard squat from during his time in Frankfort.
You may say, “Yeah, yeah. We’ve heard this before. Blah, blah, blah. Stay in touch with our legislators. We get it.” But would your local legislator have a dramatically different story to tell?
Perhaps the legislator was speaking in a moment of less than total recall. Perhaps he was engaging in a bit of political hyperbole. But with the communications options that exist today – and the stakes for public education in Kentucky that are on the table of the 2016 General Assembly – should any legislator legitimately be able to voice such a claim?
Action avenues that work
At the KSBA Winter Symposium last month, Governmental Relations Director Hope McLaughlin offered some solid tips for building and maintaining relations between board members and their legislators. I’ll summarize five top highlights.
• Understanding the issues before making contacts. This means get the facts, track the status of existing legislation and know your legislators’ voting records on education issues as well as their committee assignments, especially if they are on the House or Senate education or budget panels.
• Be sure your legislator knows you before seeking their support during the session. This can be accomplished by inviting lawmakers to school events and/or talking with them when they are at home at community activities.
• Come to Frankfort for the KSBA LEAD (Legislative Education Advocacy Day) Jan. 20 (evening) and Jan. 21 (morning especially for scheduled personal meetings between district leaders and their legislators).
• In face-to-face meetings, be specific, be focused, and always ask what the legislator’s position is on the issue. Be a “closer” – ask the legislator straight out for her/his support on the issue. And let the KSBA lobbying team know what you learn from the talks.
• In all kinds of contacts, including meetings, identify yourself by your board position and the district you represent. Your constituents are among the lawmakers’ constituents, too. When discussing any issue, use local examples to make your points.
Many of these pointers may seem obvious, but remember the line famously attributed to the late Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives: “All politics is local.” Local folks often may be more effective with their elected leaders than paid lobbyists or credentialed experts.
The Last Word
In 2016, 171 Kentucky school boards have within their policies these pertinent passages under the headline “Code of Ethics:”
• to act as a staunch advocate for high quality schools, instructional curricula and professional staff dedicated to the educational welfare of all children;
• to help their constituents (my note: these include legislators who live in your district) to understand the importance of broad community support and involvement in the public schools; and
• to obey and uphold all laws, rules, regulations and court orders of the Commonwealth of Kentucky and of the United States, reserving the right to bring about needed changes through legal and ethical procedures.
School board members who directly, regularly, irregularly but at least repeatedly, give their state lawmakers the view from the front lines of education are exercising that “right” to be advocates, to increase understanding and bring about change through legal, ethical processes.
How effectively and frequently board members and superintendents engage their state representatives and state senators is a choice. Those who fail to do so have made a choice as well. That’s something to think about the next time you hear grousing about actions taken in the 2016 session.
And that’s also a message worth getting out.