How administrators can improve community engagement with small groups

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by Beth Griesmer

Arlington ISD administrators felt that community engagement had been harder to achieve and more controversial over the past two years. Trustee Talks, a community engagement initiative, was born out of a need to get back into the community and change the council’s narrative after spending time behind screens during the pandemic.

“Before COVID, we had a lot of goodwill with our community, we were connecting with large majorities, still in the community,” said Arlington ISD Trustee David Wilbanks, who has served on the board since 2019. “Suddenly everyone was mad at us. ”

The district’s social media had been dominated by negativity at the start of the 2021-22 school year, according to Wilbanks. “In the absence of communication, people always assume the worst.” Arlington ISD, a large school district outside of Dallas, adopted a bond package amid the pandemic by a very slim margin, Wilbanks said. “COVID has done a lot of damage to our position in the community, largely because we weren’t communicating there. People need to feel heard. »

Two-way conversations

Inspired by a town hall format, Wilbanks and new board member Sarah McMurrough wanted a two-way conversation between the board and the community to help rebuild trust. “We had a lot of conversations as a board before launching it,” McMurrough said. “It was something that all eight of us had to adhere to before we started to make it really effective.”

Arlington ISD Superintendent Marcelo Cavazos attended all five trustee interviews the district has held so far. McMurrough stressed that the talks are led by administrators and that the superintendent is there to listen. “Whoever comes to discussions with the trustees, the superintendent hears it directly from the person,” McMurrough said.

The first interviews with administrators in February were attended mainly by teachers and a few community members. “The fact that they could have an honest, safe, two-way conversation in front of the superintendent was so invaluable,” Wilbanks said of the eight teachers in attendance.

“Trustee Talks provides our stakeholders – teachers, parents and others – the opportunity to hear from the board outside of regular board meetings,” Cavazos said. “We can dig deeper into the topics our administrators want to share with the public and provide opportunities for questions and answers.”

News of the trustees’ talks spread around the district, and members of the transportation department came to the next conference in April. They were able to share “some things that weren’t visible to us,” Wilbanks said, including that the transportation department didn’t have a coffee maker, among other concerns. The intention of Trustee Talks, according to Wilbanks and McMurrough, is to keep them small and intimate to allow for meaningful conversations.

Related: 5 Ways School Boards Can Build Trust in the Community

Lessons learned along the way

Arlington ISD administrators have learned a few things by hosting these events every two months. “We found that we really needed a hook to attract people,” Wilbanks said. Admins started looking at topics that resonated with people to start conversations. The August talks, which focused on safety and security, were well attended with the participation of over 30 community members.

“School safety is an ongoing conversation at Arlington ISD. It is always being addressed and always revisited in partnership with our police department,” McMurrough said. Representatives from the Arlington ISD Police Department came to the August talks with administrators to answer questions, and the two-way dialogue allowed the community to see the complexity of the topic.

While Trustees may not know where conversations will end, they have a format they follow for every Trustee conversation. “There’s an assumption that the school board is the boss of the district,” McMurrough said. “We start by sharing the role of the board and that really sets the tone for how the conversation is going to unfold.”

McMurrough had some advice for other districts considering a similar community engagement initiative:

  • Have a format: Trustee interviews begin with a welcome and introduction from the board members and district staff in attendance. They define the role between governance and management, then give a brief update on what is happening in the district related to the topic of the conference.
  • Have a facilitator: Board members take turns leading the directors’ talks at each event.
  • Do not violate the Texas Open Meetings Act (OMA): McMurrough stressed that it is important that the number of board members present does not represent a quorum. According to TASB Legal Services, ensuring less than a quorum of the board attends an event does not eliminate the risk of an OMA challenge. Districts should consult an attorney when planning a community meeting that will involve council members. If in doubt, the safest approach is to publish the meeting in accordance with the AMO.
  • Have a hot topic: Arlington ISD administrators create a topic for each administrator discussion based on what is resonating in the community. McMurrough suggests not having a pre-planned set of topics for the year, but letting current issues in the community dictate each topic.
  • Have district staff close at hand: This is important to show the community that the board takes issues seriously, as well as having experts to answer questions and provide context if needed.
  • Have a system for answering questions that cannot be answered at the moment: Arlington ISD uses cards that allow community members to ask questions and provide contact information. McMurrough said another benefit is that the maps showed trends in community concern.

“As superintendent, I want to make sure our administrators have all the resources they need before, during and after each interview with administrators,” Cavazos said. “We collaborate on agenda topics and I help coordinate any expert speakers we might need at the meeting. Our directors focus their discussions on governance initiatives. Still, sometimes members of the public ask questions or raise concerns about operational issues, so I am available at every event to answer those questions.

“It makes you extremely vulnerable as a board and as a superintendent in the climate you find yourself in, but I’m saying, ‘Just immerse yourself,'” McMurrough said.

Related: How your school board can engage and empower the community

Board briefs

Another initiative launched by Arlington ISD administrators last spring was Board Briefs. Directors take turns making four-minute videos that provide a brief overview of the board meeting. The videos are then available on the district’s YouTube channel. According to Wilbanks and McMurrough, this easily shareable social media content initiative has been well received. They both admit it’s a bit of a production challenge and takes support from the district’s communications department. Wilbanks suggests doing some of the filming up front with policy updates whenever possible.

“Both of these initiatives, I think, are really good avenues to meet the community where we are now,” McMurrough said. Wilbanks and McMurrough acknowledge that the initiatives require a district-wide effort and have been no small feat.

“We represent the community’s vision and values,” Wilbanks said. “We are a very large district and we all have day jobs. It’s hard for us to go out there in the community. It’s a lot of hard work to do well, but it’s very beneficial as an administrator.

This article was first published on November 1, 2022.

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