Welcome to the eighth blog post in the Region 5 Comprehensive Center’s Strategic Budgeting series. In these posts we are walking through the five elements of Strategic Budgeting, to help provide additional tools to local education officials who want to think more strategically about how to use their resources. As you likely know by now, the five elements of Strategic Budgeting are:
Today’s post addresses how districts may effectively communicate with staff, parents, and the broader community on budget issues.
Effective communication with district or school staff, parents, and the broader community is one of the best ways of gaining engagement, buy-in, and support for decisions—both budgetary and nonbudgetary. Among the advantages of actively engaging stakeholders in district decisionmaking are: gaining important input about district priorities and ideas for achieving them (someone with a different perspective may come up with a better solution), developing trust with stakeholders, and obtaining buy-in—especially among people with different points of view.
How Communication Can Support Strategic Budgeting
In the context of strategic budgeting, effective communication with stakeholders should be part of each step. (That’s why it’s in the center of our graphic.) When identifying or updating your vision and goals, all stakeholder groups should be active participants in the process. Listening sessions, surveys, and stakeholder panels cast a wide net for gaining input about the priorities of district staff, parents, and community members.
For engagement on vision and goals to be successful, the district needs to communicate about their current financial and academic performance, where leadership hopes to move the district, the strengths the district brings to bear in the effort, and the challenges it faces. If stakeholder priorities are different from those of district leadership, we recommend that leadership either adjust its priorities to accommodate those of stakeholders, or provide a clear rationale for why they are not adopting stakeholder priorities while assuring everyone that they have been heard.
When assessing how well its resources are aligned with goals, districts may take the opportunity to explain how they have effectively stewarded scarce resources to meet district priorities in the past, and provide examples of success stories. This background can help explain the need to conduct a new assessment to realign resources with changing priorities, and take advantage of new opportunities – such as the temporary ESSER funding provided by the federal American Rescue Plan.
Using data in these communications provides evidence for decisions made by district leadership, and guides the stakeholder deliberations as they help identify district priorities. To continue building trust, all communication should be grounded in accurate and reliable data.
Finally, in the continuous improvement process (to be discussed in our next post), districts evaluate their programs and strategies for effectiveness and make adjustments as needed. This process affords districts yet another opportunity to share successes, demonstrate their commitment to helping all students succeed, and engage stakeholders in the improvement planning process.
KnowledgeWorks developed a toolkit to help districts engage stakeholders in the budget process and better communicate how resources are being aligned with the districts’ vision and goals. Four key takeaways from their work are:
- Recognizing that community alignment leads to dollars better spent. Engaging stakeholders in establishing a district’s vision and goals leads to a clearer consensus of what needs to be done and where resources need to be invested.
- Being explicit about how every financial decision aligns to your vision. A district should be able to clearly demonstrate how every budget allocation supports its vision and goals.
- Using your budget as a tool to communicate your vision and how expenditures are aligned to district goals.
- Empowering educators to be frontline communicators. Principals and teachers have the most contact with parents and other community members. Internal district communications should equip them to describe how district spending is aligned with district and community priorities.
Being Strategic With Your Communications
In an article for Wisconsin School Administrators, the Donovan Group, an education communications consulting firm, recommended asking the following four questions for every district communication:
- As it relates to this communication, how will I know that I am successful? What are my goals with this communication?
- To achieve the goals I have outlined in the first question, who do I need to reach? Who is my audience? With which stakeholders do I need to connect?
- To achieve the goals I have outlined in the first question, what do I want to make sure my audience knows, understands, and feels? What are my key messages?
- Finally, to achieve the goals I have outlined in the first question, which communication tools can I use to convey my messages to my stakeholders?
Answering these questions requires a district to be thoughtful and strategic in understanding what it wants to achieve with each communication, who the target audience is, whether the target audience is responding to the message as desired, what the most appropriate means of reaching the target audience is, and finally, devising a method for assessing whether or not the communication was successful.
In terms of message content, a survey of more than 43,000 parents across 22 states by the National School Public Relations Association found that parents were most interested in the following content information in communications from their school districts:
- Rationale or reasons for decisions that the school district makes,
- Curricular or educational options,
- How well the school district is performing compared to other school districts, and
- Budget and finance elections and updates.
Districts should keep this list in mind as they make decisions about what to communicate to their stakeholders.
Developing a District Strategic Communications Plan
The National School Public Relations Association argues that every district should have a comprehensive strategic communication plan to help achieve its vision and garner the support of staff and community members. It recommends the following four-step planning process:
- Research – analyzing where the district stands in regard to all audiences it wishes to reach.
- Planning/Assessment – developing public relations goals, objectives, and strategies that go hand-in-hand with the district's overall mission and goals.
- Implementation/Communication – carrying out the tactics necessary to meet the objectives and goals.
- Evaluation – looking back at actions taken to determine their effectiveness and make future changes.
Your district should consider developing a strategic communications plan if it does not already have one. If it has been a while since your plan was updated, now may be a good time to do so to ensure your plan addresses more recent modes of communications, such as social media. Examples of district communications plans can be found here and here.
In addition to the resources linked above, we also want to call your attention to a report published last year by the National Comprehensive Center, titled Strategic Performance Management: A Communication Lens. This document draws on work with a handful of states, and walks you through a process to link strategic planning and performance management. The report integrates strategic communication practices throughout the process to strengthen external and internal engagement and collaboration.
Next Week’s Blog Post
In our next post, we will discuss the continuous improvement process. Continuous improvement process is a cyclical process that involves setting goals; implementing programs and strategies to achieve the goals; evaluating the efficacy of the programs and strategies, adjusting or replacing as warranted; and repeating in a continuous improvement loop. We hope you will join us. In the meantime, let us know if you have any questions or suggestions. You can reach us at BradKeller@westat.com.
New posts will appear here on Monday mornings, so feel free to bookmark the page. This is the eighth post in the series; if you want to start at the beginning of the series, go here. The previous post was the second half of a discussion about using data, and can be found here.
Keeping up with our posts
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This blog post is in the public domain. While permission to reprint is not necessary, this publication should be cited. The blog post is prepared by the Region 5 Comprehensive Center under Award #S283B190030 for the Office of Program and Grantee Support Services (PGSS) within the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE) of the U.S. Department of Education, and is administered by Westat. The content of the blog post does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the PGSS or OESE or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.
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