Donovan Group Insights

School Finance Communication: Asking the Right Questions

This is the third article of a three-part series on communication about school finance. If you haven’t already, we invite you to read the first and second articles in the series.

I always find that when communicating about budgets and attempting to create messages, it’s helpful to answer three simple questions. These include the following:

1) What’s the problem?

It’s important to outline the challenges that are being created by Wisconsin’s school finance system. Remember, most community members don’t have master’s degrees in education, so you have to keep it simple. You also have to be direct, transparent and honest as you can be as you define the problem.

However, it is always important to provide some background information that informs community members about school finance.

2) Why is this important?

One of the challenges of communicating during challenging times is that it is difficult to get the attention of a public that has more than enough to worry about. After explaining the problem, explicitly explain why it is important. I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that school leaders intentionally raise the anxiety level of an already-anxious public. Instead, simply explain what is at stake.

3) What is being done to address the problem?

No one wants to be the bearer of bad news. But what’s even worse than sharing bad news is when people are surprised by the bad news. When explaining what is being done, don’t automatically go to the worst-case scenario or use the threat of cutting a popular program to get community members’ attention. Instead, explain what is being done to address the problem directly.

Always keep in mind that schools are about kids—and real people are affected. Don’t come off as being clinical or detached. Be authentic and real.

4) What’s next?

Finally, explain the next steps in the process. Use this opportunity to tell community members how they can learn more and what they can do to help. I suggest always having three things for people to do, such as going to the district website for more information, attending a meeting or an upcoming listening session or contacting the governor or state legislators.

When it comes to communicating about schools, the most complicated and most important issues are school finance and the budget. School leaders are right to embrace the challenge, working together with board members and administrators to form a common set of messages and clearly defined plan to communicate.

While we can never know what will happen in the future, we do know that budgets will continue to be a topic of much conversation in the future. Embrace the opportunity to engage.

–Joe Donovan

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