Designing a District Communications Program

Hired as an interim superintendent in August 2019, Cambridge-Isanti Schools Superintendent Dr. Nate Rudolph prioritized effective communications. The district was experiencing significant change, controversial facilities and finance issues, and low morale following $4 million in budget cuts only months earlier. A neighboring superintendent suggested partnering with CEL. Working with the district leadership team, we outlined a communications plan, streamlined communication tools, and supported community engagement work.

“The best decision I made as a superintendent that first year was partnering with CEL. We were facing complex issues, and I don’t think I could have found that level of expertise anywhere else. The ability to connect and access their expertise allowed us to be successful.”

~ Nate Rudolph, Superintendent

referendum mailer for C-I Schools

Establishing A Communications Plan

Cambridge-Isanti Schools had a well-established brand, mission and core values as the foundation for a communications plan. New to the community, Dr. Rudolph focused his transition plan on listening and learning; relationship building was his top priority. He quickly learned about budget, transportation, and facilities concerns that would require significant staff and community engagement.

With a largely new district leadership team and uncertainty ahead, CEL’s Vision in Focus communications service provided proactive planning, ongoing support and on-call consultation. “We were able to navigate complexity and communicate effectively,” said Superintendent Rudolph. “while only accessing what we needed when we needed it.”

We collected public opinion research, prioritized access to and training for staff on existing communications tools, and developed a consistent cadence for communication. A District Communications Plan now outlines key audiences, the purpose and frequency of ongoing communication, and monthly priorities in a communications calendar. 

Superintendent Nate Rudolph out in the community

Photo credit: JoJo Spencer Studios

Staff Recruitment & Enrollment Marketing

In Cambridge-Isanti Schools, education is all about the people. Relationships are at the core of learning and inspiring students. In this growing community, an integrated marketing communications plan supports the district’s goal of being the “schools of choice” for families and staff. Both staff recruitment and student enrollment are important priorities for the communications team.

"The School Board understands the district’s communication program can only be effective if everyone in the organization accepts responsibility for communicating effectively, building relationships, marketing the organization, and serving as ambassadors of the district as they meet and greet people during their daily work."

~ Cambridge-Isanti School Board Policy 910

Engaging the Community

Following $4.5 million in budget reductions in 2019, the District’s Financial Audit indicated a declining fund balance and the need for additional budget cuts. Mapping out a budget reduction communication plan prioritized face-to-face meetings with all employee groups, which started in February 2020 before being interrupted by COVID-19 closures. 

Distance learning and all communications quickly shifted online in a community that lacked broadband access in many areas. The challenges of the pandemic presented new learning opportunities: jumping into Facebook Live, more video, more texting, and facilitating online meetings to ensure two-way dialogue with staff and families. The district asked for patience and grace, and the community responded in kind.

With a belief that public schools are owned by their communities, the district sought to engage families and community members actively. The Board expanded its finance and communications committees to include more citizens. Updating the District’s Public Information policy, the Board set guiding principles for ensuring a planned and effective two-way communications and public relations program and asked everyone in the organization to be a communicator.

Working with actively engaged community members and opinion leaders, the district engaged more than 60 staff and community members in a Strategic Planning process that focuses all district efforts on four strategic priorities.

strategic plan document
responsive website for C-I Schools

Building Communication Capacity

Teamwork makes the dream work for Cambridge-Isanti communications. A highly collaborative communications committee includes representatives from the superintendent’s office, teaching and learning, community education, and human resources. The committee meets twice monthly to implement a communications plan that prioritizes employee engagement and public trust.

The District Communication Plan includes goals, message pillars and consistent communication tactics to share the district’s story and report on priorities.

      • Monthly Bluejacket Family & Staff Communications 
      • Board Briefs & Updates
      • School Newsletters (biweekly)
      • Advisory Committees
      • Community Education Catalog (3x per year)
      • Direct Mail Community Postcard (3x per year)
      • Regular Website Updates
      • Social Media Posts (3x per week or more)
      • Family & Staff Survey (every other year)
      • Presence at Community Events

Building capacity in a district where staff have many responsibilities has meant deploying effective communication systems and providing ongoing training and support on mass notification tools, newsletter & website tools, digital marketing, and effective communication strategies.

The district’s partnership with CEL also expedited migrating the website from Blackboard to Finalsite, integrating school newsletters into the website and the mass communication tool, and adopting the Canva for Education graphics tools districtwide. This effort culminated in a 2024 Publications and Digital Media award from NSPRA.

2024 publications and digital media award

A Two-Year Referendum Effort

Community engagement about school finance needs during the pandemic and the 2020 Presidential election extended into a two-year effort to secure local funding. District leaders gave more than 60+ presentations in backyards and at small businesses during the first six months of the pandemic. A 2020 referendum failed in the fiscally conservative rural district but provided opportunities to meet more people and start to share the budget story.

In January 2021, the district engaged a Community Task Force of 38 community and staff members to study the challenges and propose solutions. The diverse group, including doctors, farmers, finance professionals, educators, elected officials, and staff eventually recommended a second referendum, which gained broad community support (63%) in 2021. A blend of face-to-face and virtual meetings, surveys, feedback loops, and strategic planning helped the district secure local funding and stabilize finances.

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it's a great day to be a bluejacket thank you voters c-i schools