Nothing is more disheartening than seeing a school community blindsided by decisions that have a negative impact on their community. Every time a school is closed, or folks that have worked with our children in our schools lose their jobs, or essential services to students are cut, communities are torn apart. It happens everywhere, with increasing frequency.
And every time I witness it, it breaks my heart.
I don’t write much about local issues (Hoover has been my home since 1970), but what is happening here is a perfect example of the powerlessness that parents and families experience when forced to accept decisions in which they had no part in making.
The Hoover Board of Education decided, without any previous public discussion, to end bus service for all children except those in special education beginning with the 2014-2015 school year. Nearly half of the district’s 13,700 students ride the bus. Due to community response, the superintendent is said to be reconsidering the decision and will present four options to save money at the August 12 Board meeting. [I should note that not everyone in Hoover was unhappy with this decision. Hoover’s mayor welcomed it, using the example of adjoining affluent districts as systems that ran just fine without buses.]
In a couple of hours, a community meeting will be held here in Hoover to begin discussing ways to address this decision. I’m scheduled to help that effort along.
In trying to figure out how best to battle the decision, I was struck with the lack of a pre-defined path for my school community. And currently those who disagree with the decision are all going about it in different ways.
So if we’re going to push back at what we believe is a bad decision, how exactly do we do it?
If you believe a bad decision is handed down by district leaders, consider the following: who made the decision, why was the decision made, how prepared are we as a school community to respond, how do we frame the issue, and, finally, how do we address it?
Who Made The Decision?
Education decisions about our school districts are made at the Central Office, by administrators or the Board of Education, or some combination of the two. District decisions can be affected by or in response to a decision by city or county leaders, certainly where local money is concerned.
Education decisions that local school districts make are sometimes influenced, even mandated, by decisions made in Montgomery: either at the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) or in the state legislature. These decisions generally affect state money.
Every now and then (think No Child Left Behind), a decision is made at the federal level, in Congress, that has a serious financial impact on local districts. However, public education is generally considered a state-directed function.
Sometimes teachers have a seat at the table, when they are represented by unions or professional associations.
But parents, families, and our children have very little influence at the table where those decisions are made, even though the decisions that are made by all those other folks have a tremendous impact on our quality of life in our school communities.
Why Was the Decision Made?
It is a fair statement to say that most decisions that negatively impact school communities have something to do with saving money, though sometimes the decisions are about how to spend money. School finance is one of those areas which most folks would rather leave up to someone else, which is why communities continue to get blindsided by money-driven decisions.
Immediately after a decision that negatively impacts a school community is made, there is an intense effort to find out why. The only folks that can answer that are the Education Decision-Makers mentioned in the previous paragraph. While there may be a Hidden Agenda, that is usually a tough game of hide and seek.
When there is little media coverage, or district officials are closed-lipped about why, a good place to start is by calling or e-mailing board members. Your board of education members should be able to defend the decision.
How Prepared Are We As a Community to Respond to the Decision?
Once you find out why, you have to determine what kind of response your school community is capable of making. This is where school communities really get caught off guard.
You have to honestly size up what type of human resources are available in your school community. Do you have PTAs or PTOs? If so, can they be called on to organize parents and families? Will they lead advocacy efforts to battle the decision?
If you don’t have existing organizations to immediately enlist, organizing a response can be difficult. Difficult, but not impossible. Unorganized efforts rarely succeed. There is strength in numbers.
Someone in the school community has to step up and lead the effort. With the ease of using social media, finding leaders shouldn’t be difficult. The best leaders emerge naturally, because of their passion for the issue or because of a particular area of expertise they may bring to the table. Watch for these folks. Help them along.
In an ideal situation, school communities have mechanisms in place to respond to bad decisions in an organized way. They stay informed and are ready to respond when needed. The ideal is not the norm, though. Most school communities are fragmented and have a difficult time obtaining the information they need to stay active as full decision-making partners with their district. [Psst…The beginning of school is an excellent time to reinvigorate parent and community organizations.]
How Do We Frame the Issue?
This is an extremely important step, and probably is the most difficult for most school communities. In order to coherently address a bad decision, you have to understand what issue the decision was trying to address. Many different motives have been ascribed to the stop-the-buses decision in Hoover: is it a short-term solution to deny access to school for children who need transportation or is it a money-saving strategy?
There are two types of frames to an issue: episodic (short-term or immediate) and thematic (long-term or Big Picture). Stopping the buses is an episodic frame. Saving money is a Big Picture frame.
School communities solve short-term, immediate problems when they address episodes. School communities address long-term problems when they use Big Picture frames.
So you have to decide which frame you need to address the bad decision. And sometimes, you need both.
How you pull your school community together to frame the issue depends on the community itself. Town hall meeting, social media discussions, meeting in clubhouses….whatever method you choose, work to frame the issue in a way in which the most people can relate to each other. Remember, there is strength in numbers. You have to resist the temptation to find reasons to hold yourself separate from others in your school community. If the issue is a Big Picture issue (and most money issues are), find the commonality of impact among the community and hang onto it.
How Do We Address It?
This depends on how you’ve framed it. In the best of circumstances, you find folks willing to step up and sit on committees or task forces, willing to meet (with or without the blessing of the school district) to solve the Big Picture issue (really….they’re always Big Picture issues….sometimes you have to work to uncover it). This takes time. And commitment. And courage. And continued support. And communication with the rest of the school community about what is going on with the effort.
Sometimes you find the next round of Board of Education members in that group of folks who stepped up.
If no one steps up to lead and organize the effort, you can rest assured that whatever the issue is, it won’t be solved. You might get a bad decision reversed in the short-term, but the underlying Big Picture issue will still be waiting to be solved.
Sustaining the Effort
This is the toughest part of it all. Parents and families are so overwhelmed with everyday activities that it’s really tough to want to go to a school board meeting, or host a town hall forum, or write letters to the editor, or even send an e-mail. Education decision-makers know that. They know they will likely outlast parents because it’s their job to outlast them. Remember, education decision-makers get paid to make those decisions. Families donate time to challenge those decisions.
That’s why unions and other membership organizations charge dues: to pay folks to look out for their best interests and stay in tune with what decision-makers are working on.
No one is paid to look out for parents’ and families’ best interests when a decision is made that negatively impacts a community.
We just have to do it ourselves. And that’s what keeps our communities strong. When we rely too heavily on our leaders (school, city, county, state) to make the decisions for us, we run the risk of losing touch with our own communities.
Is your school community prepared and ready to respond to a bad decision? How have bad decisions been addressed in your school community? Please share your successful efforts or lessons learned here or on the Facebook page.