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Building collaborative relationships

Focusing on student achievement pays off in higher levels of performance for every part of the school system. And boards have an important role to play.

Boards provide the critical link among schools, parents and the community. With one foot in the community and the other in schools, board members are uniquely positioned to listen to the concerns of all of the people who have a stake in education. More important, boards must work with schools and the community for better results.

Can we improve schools without the support of the community? Maybe. But if we try to, we run the risk of barely scratching the surface of what it means to prepare students to meet the challenges of the future. This requires the active participation of everybody who has a stake in helping our students succeed.

It is the responsibility of the board to build collaborative relationships with political and business leaders in order to develop a consensus for student success; to communicate regularly with federal and state officials about student achievement; and to model behavior that emphasizes trust, teamwork and shared accountability. These tips can help.

Linking with other agencies

Here are some things board members and staff can do to improve their communications and collaboration with other officials:

  • Keep local officials up-to-date with your activities and issues by sending them copies of your board minutes, meeting highlights and district publications.
  • Share research findings that may pertain to other agencies with officials from those agencies.
  • Establish personal relationships with your community’s other elected officials and their appointed aides. Take the initiative and invite someone you want to get to know to lunch or coffee.
  • Encourage the creation of a joint city council and school/ESD/CC board committee to discuss and explore items of mutual concern at a policy level.
  • Set up a special tour of your organization for elected and appointed officials from your community.
  • Invite local, state and federal representatives to a board meeting or community forum to brief you on issues with which they are dealing.
  • Sponsor a "Focus on students" night. Kick it off with five-minute "as we see the state of youth" presentations from representatives of the health department, law enforcement agencies, children’s services, United Way, YWCA and YMCA, city and county officials and schools, followed by an audience question and answer period and a process to identify an activity that may address one of the many issues that will be raised.
  • Monitor how your legislators vote. When they vote positively on children’s issues, write them a note thanking them for their dedication to children’s needs.
  • When analyzing how your public will respond to a proposal or piece of news about your organization, be sure to inform elected officials of the analysis.
  • Make sure your district/ESD/CC is visibly represented at forums, discussions or presentations on issues that affect children.
  • Include elected officials on board advisory committees.
  • Encourage your staff to "cross pollinate" by meeting with staff members from other agencies that hold similar positions. These could include CEOs, purchasing agents, public relations directors, personnel directors, maintenance and operations directors, food service managers, negotiators, technology support coordinators and security personnel, to name a few.
  • If you’re a school district, at least annually, meet with the board from the community college that serves your district; if you’re an ESD or community college board, invite your “feeder” groups to join your meetings.
  • Involve officials from other agencies and jurisdictions in your strategic planning efforts.
  • Bring together many groups (parent organizations, unions, student representatives, etc.) to study and agree on legislative priorities. Then communicate those priorities to the state and federal legislative bodies and to your community.

Forming coalitions

Coalitions dealing with issues concerning education are a natural part of your public relations program. They can help you deal with a threat or an opportunity. By bringing together unique individuals and groups to work on a common concern, coalitions can turn diversity into unity that works for education and can increase public understanding and support. Here are some ways to start and nurture collaborative relationships in the form of coalitions:

  • Explore the issues. They might be something general, such as getting education back on the community agenda, or something specific, such as extending the length of the school year.
  • Identify groups – business leaders, students, staff members, nonparents and others – who have a stake in the issue.
  • Convene a meeting. State the coalition’s purpose as you see it.
  • Select someone to chair the coalition. The leader may or may not be someone directly involved in the issue. However, the person selected should be someone with the time, energy, ability and commitment to do the job.
  • Select members who will work out of concern for the common good and not just self-interest.
  • Be sure members have the information they need to make wise decisions and encourage them to develop strategies to deal with the issues.
  • Be positive and look to the future.
  • Keep coalition members, your staff, board and community informed through a communications network.
  • Avoid voting. Work on the basis of consensus.
  • Don’t insist that all groups deal with objectives in the same manner. Try to agree on general ideas and projects.
  • Be willing to make compromises for the common good. Be a good negotiator.

Modeling teamwork

When the board, superintendent/president and district administration work well together, they project the positive image of a team with a vision working in a coordinated way to provide the best possible education in the community. This spirit is catching. It can spread the vision and the urge to help throughout the community. Here are some tips for making that relationship work:

  • Trust each other. The superintendent/president has the right to expect the trust and confidence of the board. Board support is especially necessary when district administrators are stepping out on a board-designed limb. Some differences are bound to occur, but honest, open discussions can overcome many obstacles to progress.
  • Communicate. Nothing can replace honest, open dialogue.
  • No surprises. Everyone wins when board members and administrators avoid springing surprises on each other in public meetings. A little forewarning can mean the answers needed are at hand and the meeting is effective and efficient.
  • Set up an evaluation system that works well for both parties. When the board makes its expectations of the superintendent/president clear and works to mutually agree upon goals and priorities for the year, the stage is set for a positive evaluation experience for both parties. At year’s end, the board and top executive can decide if the manageable, attainable, measurable goals they set together have been reached. This provides a concrete basis for evaluations and for reporting to the community your progress in reaching goals.
  • Agree on roles, relationships and responsibilities. Some boards like to put this in writing. They make a list of what the role of the board and superintendent/president will be, and they agree on how they will operate well together.
  • Do your homework. Board members who read materials provided to them and study the issues before they make decisions earn the respect of their constituents.
  • Refer questions to staff as needed. Public education is complicated and no one can expect a board member to know all of the answers.
  • Work together toward educational goals. A board that is split into factions can fall into the trap of needing to win personal victories over important issues. When the focus and common goal is students and their education, board members work on finding common ground and making sound decisions.

Adapted from OSBA’s PR In Action, a communication subscription service for Oregon schools.

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