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How to communicate effectively about school budgets

There is a definite art to effective financial communications. Communications on the financials are frequently given the least attention by public school districts yet this is an area that should remain in the forefront of all communications.

In an era of government mistrust and in a time of 24/7 news cycles, there is an expectation from citizens that schools talk about the financial state of the district. In fact, virtually all school district surveys we’ve seen recently show that citizens expect stricter budgeting and strong financial management from their schools. That doesn’t mean simply putting up the five-year forecast on the district website and hoping people will read it. It means providing citizens with information that is communicated frequently, is topical and is presented in an easy-to-understand manner.

What does “easy to understand” mean? It means that the financials should be written so that it is clear why the public should care. For example, as the sluggish economy continues to impact many school district residents, they are making tough decisions about family budgets to make ends meet. The expectation is that schools should be doing the same — and many of you are — you just have to make sure your residents know about it. Start your communications with: “Just like you, we are feeling the challenge of these economic times and continue to look at ways of reducing our overall budget.” Are you participating in fuel consortiums? Are your buildings recognized for being energy-efficient? These stories resonate with the public because it is a relatable action that they themselves do to save money.

When it comes to communicating major financial information, such as the five-year forecast, it should be accompanied by a well-written, on-point news release or editorial from the school district treasurer. Bullet-point summaries, graphs and graphics accompanied by short explanations are always the best way to simplify complicated financial information. Every district newsletter should include a financial update, and all districts should consider producing an annual financial report.

One note of caution — all school districts should be wary of falling into what sometimes occurs, which is that “any communications is good communications.” In other words, “if we just put any and everything all out there, then we are doing a great job with communications.”  Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, what will occur is that those wanting information will become frustrated and others simply will not tune into what the district communicates on finances because it is all haphazard.

Communicating the financial state of the school district is critical to building trust in a time of constant scrutiny. Your goal should be to ensure frequency, clarity and, most importantly, for those communications to build a narrative that proves you are mindful of taxpayer funds.  Communicate it correctly and you are sure to gain the public’s support.

Joel Gagne of Allerton Hill Consulting works with school districts, nonprofits and others to strengthen community engagement. He offers a range of experience in politics and has been involved in political campaigns at every level for more than 25 years, including serving as a member of the school board in his hometown of Hull, Mass.

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