By Brenna R. Kelly
Being an advocate for your school district doesn’t have to mean roaming the halls in Frankfort. It can mean roaming the halls of a school with a legislator in tow.
Advocacy can mean publishing a one-page explanation of the district’s budget, issuing a press release about why a tax increase is needed or a posting a chart to social media showing how education’s share of state funding is shrinking.
“Advocacy is the perfect role for school board members,” said Eric Kennedy, KSBA’s director of advocacy as he addressed board members and educators at the Summer Leadership Institute. “You are making the final decision to make sure that there’s going to be enough resources and finances to operate your district. The buck stops with you.”
Board members are also able to relate to state legislators in a way no other public education advocate can, he said.
“You can go to your legislators and say, ‘I am also an elected official, the same people who vote for you vote for me,’” Kennedy said.
Kennedy urged board members not to think of advocacy as an extra task, but as part of the work of being a board member. Invite local legislators to budget discussions at board meetings and when the board is considering a tax increase, explain why it’s needed to teachers, parents and the community through meetings and press releases, he said.
“Always be mindful of the advocacy piece to what you are doing,” Kennedy said. “Make advocacy for your decisions a part of everything you do.”
In preparation for the budget session of the legislature in January, Kennedy asked board members to forge relationships with their legislators and invite them into schools to see the effects that funding has on teaching and learning, operations and facilities, and to see what’s really happening in classrooms instead of what they may see in the media or on social media.
In addition to the budget, legislators are also considering overhauling the state’s system of career and technical education (CTE). School board members should begin discussing CTE with their legislators now, giving tours of their facilities and expressing their needs, he said.
“It’s so important that we connect our legislators back to the reality in our schools,” Kennedy said.
Those personal relationships are important, particularly now in an era of divisive government,” he said.
“Everything is so toxic that we are even struggling to come to an agreement on the facts,” he said, recalling a committee meeting in which a legislator stated education was funded at a historic level – but would not consider that the numbers needed to be adjusted for inflation.
Because of that, Kennedy urged board members to discuss funding in another way. When the Kentucky Education Reform Act passed in 1990, the state spent 46 percent of the general fund on P-12 education. After KERA, it climbed to 52 percent in 1996. Since then, the percentage of general fund dollars spent on P-12 education has declined to 43 percent.
“Education is being crowded out by spending on other programs,” he said. For example, since 1988-89, spending on corrections has climbed almost twice as high as investments in education.
Board members can also use these figures to show their communities that education is not getting the funding it deserves from Frankfort, and that if they have to raise local taxes, it’s needed to fill gaps in state funding.
With just five months before the legislature convenes, the time to advocate for your district is now, he said.
“If we do advocacy well, we will much less often be at a place where we are having to do an action call,” he said. “That holistic, year-round, encompassing act of supporting public education in everything that we do is what is going to advance us to where we need to be for education.”