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This is the first article of a three-part series on communication about school finance.

There is a universal truth when communicating about education: nearly everyone has an opinion because nearly everyone has attended school. But if it’s true that everyone has attended school and therefore is well informed about what school is, the same is certainly not true when it comes to school finance and district budgets.

Let’s face it—when communicating about school finance, it can be very difficult to communicate the concepts involved in a way that makes sense. In many cases, learning enough about school finance to communicate about it requires adopting a whole new language and wrestling with new and exceedingly difficult financial concepts. This leads to a complete inability to communicate what Wisconsin school finance is to anyone who does not already understand it.

Even among those who understand accounting and business finance, the complexity of the Wisconsin school finance system is enough to bring sweat to the brow of the most seasoned CPA or CFO. For those of us who have tried to explain school finance to people who know finance, we understand how challenging it can be.

But with all the changes that have taken place over the past several years, it is even more critical that school leaders engage their communities about school finance—especially the challenges for your district due to state-level changes.

When communicating about school finance, there are some important principles to remember, some hints to keep in mind and the need to be strategic in our efforts.

Meet my mom

My mom is like a lot of community members. She is in her eighties. She loves public schools, but is not as engaged with them as she once was when her three children attended them. And, while she generally feels that her tax dollars are well spent, she is also concerned about taxes. She is also not a school finance expert.

My mom’s problem with school finance is that she cannot believe it can be all that difficult. This is a person who is smart and engaged—she helped my dad run a small business for decades. How hard can school finance be?

My mom, like many other community members, gets frustrated when school leaders use complicated terms or acronyms to describe school finance concepts. She figures they must be hiding something behind this language.

The key to communicating about school finance is doing so in a way that my mom—and other community members like her—can understand.

To do this, school leaders must first educate.

Important facets of the school finance system must be broken down to allow community members to understand and become more engaged. While my mom and other people like her do not want or need all the subtleties and history of school finance, a good understanding of the central pieces of school finance (such as what a revenue limit is) is critically important to communicating effectively.

To many school leaders, this may seem impossible. While I agree it is a huge challenge, the key to communicating about the budget and its impact is to first create a level of understanding about what school finance is.

Consider creating a very brief “School Finance 101” document that includes a glossary of terms. Post it to the district’s website and make it available to those who attend school board meetings. Take the time to present to your local PTA or PTO and keep track of the questions you receive. You can create a school finance-specific frequently asked questions page for your website based on those questions.

Again, community members like my mom don’t need to know everything about school finance, so don’t try to cover too much information. Stick to the basics. Where it’s appropriate to do so, use examples like a home mortgage or personal finance to show similarities and differences between what the average community member must deal with and the situation facing your district.

After providing the necessary background information about how school finance works, it’s important to be clear about what you want to say about it. For most school district leaders, this is just as difficult as explaining what a revenue limit is. Forming a set of clear and well-defined messages about the budget is critical to communicating well.

In our next post, we discuss how you can best communicate the complexities of budget and school finance.

Next: The ‘Gas Station Principle’

–Joe Donovan