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How School Business Officals should be communicating to the public

May 5, 2014

When I became a Treasurer I knew that I would have to report financial information to the Board of Education at least monthly, discuss finances with the Superintendent when needed and communicate/explain our fiscal situation to bargaining units at negotiation time. No big deal, right?

What I never considered was the impact that my communications skills would have on the community that I serve in this role. For better or worse, gone are the days when most community members had no idea, or cared very much how district funds were spent. No longer are we blindly trusted to do the right thing. Whether this lack of trust is deserved or not is really beside the point. Voters who decide on new or continued local taxes expect details on how we use their money, and more than ever we Treasurers and other business officials are serving folks who expect accountability and require direct answers to their questions. In order to maintain our credibility with the electorate, it is critical that we are able to satisfy this need.

Here are some basic rules that I believe are worth thinking about when it comes to communicating as a school business official.

#1. Honesty, even if the news isn’t good, is absolutely essential when disclosing information. The media and members of the public can spot a phony or someone who is fudging the facts a mile away, and as in any relationship, once trust is lost, it is nearly impossible to get back. There is no fact so bad that it is better to sugar coat it (or worse) and end up losing trust.

#2. Don’t be defensive. I know this is easy to say but often difficult to do when a public records request or a call for information appears to be questioning our judgement or ethics. Still, by doing our jobs well and willingly disclosing information to anyone who requests it, we establish and justify the confidence we need from our community.

#3. Remember that information doesn’t belong to us. With very few exceptions, what we know is what the community is entitled to know.

#4. Tap into the kids. This is huge for me. At my district we have a different building make a presentation at each Board of Education meeting. I don’t care if is the cutest little kindergartener or a geeky high school student, being around the kids, even if it is only once a month for a few minutes, helps me to remember why I have this job. I recently read a bio from one of my peers that stated that he is the ‘chief financial officer for 3500 kids’. I had never thought of it that way before. I always think of being responsible to the Board or the voters, but looking at the faces of and listening to the voices of kids singing or reading at the Board meetings or just excitedly talking about the puppy who visited their classroom recently brings me a sense of purpose far beyond just answering to the Board of Education. KIDS – the reason we do what we do!

#5. Enjoy being a public servant. I know that public servants are not always held in the highest of esteem these days. Let’s face it – a few have brought that disrespect on themselves. But I believe that having a job that is supported by the taxpayers – many who struggle to pay their taxes and still have money left for their families – is an honor. It makes me proud and reminds me to do the best job possible for those folks who pay their taxes and count on me work hard to educate kids with their money.
We school business folks may not all be blessed with the skills to be eloquent speakers or effective writers, but we all have the ability to be honest and humble and cordial when we communicate with anyone in the course of our jobs. That’s really all most folks expect from us. No big deal, right?

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