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Communications Policies for School Boards and Effective Leadership

Without a doubt, school board policy is the foundation of effective governance and operations. But when the business of day-to-day leadership gets busy (2020, anyone?), your planned policy manual review and updates can quickly move toward the bottom of the priority list.  Community engagement over the past 18 months has grown, due in part to the use of virtual meetings that allow easy access for anyone. High engagement during a highly polarized time means that clear communications policies are needed. Leaders, after all, rely on well-reasoned, well-written policies as they manage the complex demands, opinions and needs of the schools, families and community members they serve.

These five communications-related policies have the ability to streamline community engagement with elected boards. They also serve to focus the work of board members and leaders whenever a new round of questions, needs or challenges arise. 

Before the new school year begins, take time to review adopted policies and gaps. Your state school board association or board attorney is an excellent resource for model policies. Your focus now on communications board policies will lay the groundwork for productive engagement and communications in the school year ahead.

Public Relations

Public relations is a measurable management function that fills your bank account of “goodwill” through two-way communication with key stakeholders —from taxpayers and community leaders to employees, students and families. At its core, the professional practice of public relations is not spin — it is rooted in relationships. A school system’s strategic use of public relations enhances those relationships, building trust with key audiences.

The policy title communicates a lot.

Public information (the old PIO role) implies one-way communication to inform the public. This is the lowest commitment to communication and insufficient for building understanding and support.

Public relations uses a two-way communication model, focused on building mutually beneficial relationships with key stakeholders upon whom your success or failure depends.

Public engagement is designed to build a sense of ownership; it involves active involvement, co-creating and community discussions. We know that when people are involved and feel ownership, they are less likely to tear down an organization or let something fail; engagement creates ambassadors and allies.

The public relations policy establishes the school district’s commitment to a public relations program, which is best assigned to the superintendent and/or qualified communication professional. Policy goals define the measurable outcomes, and expectations for a) internal and external communications, b) relationships with stakeholder groups and c) active listening to consider diverse sets of opinions and perspectives. Here is an excerpt of a sample policy designed to accomplish this.

The district’s effective communications is established through relationships with our internal and external publics. This policy establishes a planned and systematic management function, based in ethical practices, and measured by its ability to help the District meet its strategic goals, including the ongoing improvement of programs, services and reputation among stakeholder groups. 

The public relations program will rely on two-way communication. The goal will be to create a better understanding of the district’s objectives, accomplishments and needs in support of its mission for students. The program requires the interpretation of public attitudes, opinions and beliefs. This will enable the School Board and Administration to design and adapt programs, policies and procedures to gain the broad understanding and actions needed to support student achievement. 

Media Relations

Your media relations policy should outline processes and responsibilities for interviews of school district employees and currently enrolled students. Most typically, board policy will appoint the superintendent or designee as the spokesperson. This approach creates a clear line of accountability, while also giving system leaders the ability to be flexible to meet the varied needs of a particular issue or interview request.

This communications policy for school boards also gives leaders the opportunity to outline the role of traditional media in the context of the school system’s mission and vision. This type of language creates a value-focused understanding of the importance of working with media outlets, along with the boundaries needed to protect teaching and learning, as well as individual privacy.

Media relations procedures must ensure proactive communication with media representatives and establish respectful, cooperative and constructive relationships that build trust and credibility with reporters. 

A positive and stable learning environment is the foundation of student success. Media relations activities should be scheduled and executed in ways that minimize disruption or distraction in student learning. The privacy rights of students, their families and staff should be considered in all media relations activities.

Social Media

Love it or hate it, social media is a reality in every school district. Effective board policy is needed to equip and empower teachers and staff members to maximize its opportunity for teaching, learning and communication — and manage the typical risks that accompany social media platforms. As with other policies in your manual, the social media policy can outline the basic structures of oversight and accountability, without specifically describing the processes and procedures that are used to carry out the policy’s intent.

Consider using a social media policy that addresses expectations and consequences for employee and student use of social media at school or away from school, should it cause substantial disruption to the learning environment. If desired, language can be added to outline expectations for the way parents, guardians and community members use social media and related tools to engage with students and district employees. While the consequences for violating expectations may be less serious, school boards have the right to communicate the expectation that bullying behavior will not be tolerated on school or district social media channels.

Social media is a ubiquitous communication technology used for communication, teaching and learning. District employees are encouraged to use social media activities to teach responsible digital citizenship and share positive stories in support of the mission of the schools. The District provides select, approved social media accounts and other online engagement tools for this purpose.

The Board expects all employees to exercise professionalism and good judgment in any social media activities, even off-duty and off-premises. Social media use must not violate any Board policies or otherwise interfere with the employee’s or coworker’s job performance. Social media activities must comply with all applicable laws, including anti-discrimination, anti-harassment, copyright, trademark, defamation, and privacy. 

Employees wishing to use social media on behalf of the school or district purposes must follow procedures defined by the superintendent and/or designee and complete approved training for expectations and appropriate use. Any violation of this policy or of any Board policies or procedures as a result of social media activities may result in corrective action, up to and including termination.

Public Participation in Board Meetings

The public has a right to engage with its elected officials, and to share views on public policy, school board deliberations and decisions on district matters. By the same token, school boards must balance the need for orderly and efficient meetings with the importance of hearing concerns, support or other opinions from the public. This policy should be written to assure open and respectful public input while also protecting the legal due process and privacy rights of individuals.

There are several ways that boards handle public comment during board meetings to achieve this balance. If your state allows flexibility in agenda items, consider whether public comment might occur before the meeting is gaveled to order, whether public comments will be broadcast like the rest of the meeting, and whether comments are restricted to items on the agenda. If meetings are live-streamed, consider how you will ensure compliance with the Federal Communications Commissions’ (FCC) standards for decency and language.

Before making any changes or writing a new policy, consult with your state school board association or board attorney to understand your local and state laws that pertain to public meetings, public forums  and elected governing boards.

Controversial Subjects

The polarizing conversations in many communities about race, culture and curriculum over the last few months has motivated many school district leaders to explore creating a new policy. The good news is, school boards have navigated countless other controversial subjects over the years and decades, from evolution to sex ed. And the legal team at the Kansas Association of School Boards believes the communications policies that worked then are likely what’s needed now.

“When controversial subjects come up, we recommend that districts slow things down and follow the process,” says Angie Stallbaumer, KASB Assistant Executive Director, Legal Services. It seems like every few years there’s some new thing that comes up, but that doesn’t mean we have to throw out what we have and start from scratch. Having tried-and-true policies allows districts to slow down — learn about the issue, discuss the best way to move forward, and decide what to do from there.”

One of the first steps to take is finding out what academic state standards or state laws may dictate your practice. Some states, for instance, may already require opt-out procedures for parents with religious objections to classroom activities or topics. Ask yourself if any state standards or laws can support your effort to give students a well-rounded education and communicate clearly when a concern is raised.

Important items to consider when you review your policy manual for this type of policy structure include:

  • The process your district uses to write, adopt and review curriculum and textbook resources
  • Accountability to ensure teachers implement the curriculum with fidelity and professional care
  • The process and approach to use when a parent or guardian questions any part of the teaching and learning experience at school
  • Any opt-out requirements by law, or established opt-out processes already in place to address objections raised by a parent or guardian

The value of strong board policies related to communications and public engagement ensures that school boards, superintendents and other district leaders have durable communications policies that continue to function in an ever-changing community and learning environment. 

Published on: August 4, 2021