Most school leaders accept that they must be transparent about taxpayer dollars.
The tricky part is getting there, particularly as we enter uncertain times for the global economy.
The key is to start right now, rather than waiting for an election or for – heaven forbid – budget cuts. We definitely can’t limit our communication to what the law requires.
When it comes to talking about difficult financial realities in a school context, I've found these three things have been a great help to me over the years:
- Keeping the budget front of mind for stakeholders
- Clarifying complicated concepts
- Bringing your whole community into the conversation
Let's unpack these a bit more below.
Financial communication must be regular, year-round and consistent. Our stakeholders should not have the impression that they only hear about the budget when we want something or when something goes wrong. This is true despite the fact that people will often ignore and tune out messages about finances unless something in the budget is going to impact their lives.
Make the complicated clear
To communicate effectively about finances, you must have a deep understanding of the complexity of your revenues, expenditures and regulatory environment. At the same time, you must also understand what stakeholders will need and want to know, and be able to cut out confusing details in order to provide clarity.
Language is also important. The terminology that must be used to satisfy an auditor is not the same language that must be used to provide full transparency and understanding to stakeholders. We must translate concepts so the average community member can easily grasp them. The school PR pro and district finance official should spend considerable time together making sure the messages are both clear and true.
Bring people into the conversation
We must also understand and prepare for any upcoming changes or needs. If there are budget cuts or a financial election coming, we need to communicate early about the factors that created the needs.This sets the agenda for the public engagement that must follow.
If the economy dips as predicted over the next year or two, many districts will find themselves forced to consider budget cuts. These conversations call for community participation. Giving people a sense of agency and ownership in these decisions helps prevent further damage to the organization. This is particularly important with staff, students and families.
"Giving people a sense of agency and ownership in these decisions helps prevent further damage to the organization." - Nicole Kirby
Similarly, if your district will put a financial question on the ballot, it is crucial to carefully consider the feedback of stakeholders.
You need to know what kind of support you have before you even ask the question, because a good communications campaign will not change the minds of people who are not inclined to support it. The function of the district’s informational campaign is to provide full transparency and make sure everyone can make an informed decision at the ballot box. The purpose of the community committee’s vote-yes campaign is to identify likely “yes” voters and get them out to the polls.
As people make decisions about sending their hard-earned dollars to our schools, we owe it to them to provide clear communication and to include them in the conversation when we have to make tough choices.