People need to be involved with public decisions, but in ways making it easy, convenient and transparent. How Oregonians finance public schools is one reason why this is vitally important.
School districts across Oregon face a harsh economic environment. It appears that statewide, schools could see a $200 million reduction in the 2011-2013 budget cycle as compared to current levels. The angst about Oregon’s K-12 education system is not news as districts debate local options. How they respond to anxious residents is news.
For every $100 million cut from the state education budget, Reynolds School District in East Multnomah County loses about $1 million in state funding. Overall, Reynolds may see a reduction of as much as $6 million next year, based on this year’s budget of $95 million.
These reductions are tough on the economically and ethnically diverse district, which serves parts of the cities of Gresham, Troutdale, Wood Village and Fairview, as well as some eastern fringes of Portland. Two years ago the district cut more than 100 teaching and staff positions due to budget constraints.
Using an innovative approach
District board members and administrators knew they needed community help to determine and assess difficult budget priorities this year. After all, the District already had whacked $12 million from its budget during the last three years, cutting programs, services, teachers, office staff and administrators.
In this budget cycle, the District wanted broad community engagement and input. In the past, town hall meetings drew small crowds consisting of familiar faces and generated few new ideas. For the 2011-2012 budget, Reynolds wanted to try something innovative – go online to assess public opinion.
It’s as if the District was channeling New York Times columnist David Brooks, who wrote on February 28: “Never cut without an evaluation process. Before legislators and governors chop a section of the budget, they should make a list of all the relevant programs. They should grade each option and then start paying for them from the top down.”
Last October, Reynolds’ leadership began working with CFM Strategic Communications to conduct a broad-based budget assessment. CFM research, public affairs and marketing public relations specialists helped the District create “ReynoldsTomorrow.”
Working with the district, CFM created a unique website – ReynoldsTomorrow.com – to share information and encourage engagement. An aggressive communication campaign educated and informed the community about the project, using traditional media, Web-based advertising and social media as promotion tools. Communication encouraged the public to go to the website to sign up for participation in future online research.
Budget assessment tool
The website and information campaign were key strategies to encourage residents to complete the survey. For reasons of simplicity, we call our opinion-gathering tool a survey, but it really is something quite different. It consists of a series of questions that allow people to rate budget strategies and tactics. Responses will help the District make informed decisions about budget allocations. A series of one-on-one interviews of school board members and people from the community were conducted to help design the budget assessment questionnaire.
Budget options assessed included school building closures, class size, a shorter school day or shorter week and specific program cuts, to name a few. Responses came from a diverse demographic grouping, providing decision makers with a representative sample of community opinion.
Online research tools allow almost everyone in the community to have a say in the decision process,” says Tom Eiland, CFM Partner. “With Internet access, people can get involved from anywhere, anytime. Online efforts allow people with jobs, kids at home and other commitments, in other words everyone, to get and stay involved.”
The story is far from over
We are only midway in this unfolding budget story, but by the end of this week CFM expects at least 700 residents will have provided the District with a comprehensive set of measurable opinions about spending priorities. That’s better than a dozen disgruntled citizens showing up at a public meeting, or the same dozen appearing at several hearings. Those who participate will be sent the survey results., providing incentive to stay engaged.
Says CFM Partner Norm Eder: “ReynoldsTomorrow is a perfect example of how integrated services of public affairs strategies, communications and research may be packaged. We are helping the District connect with the community at a new, deeper level.”
In launching the ReynoldsTomorrow program, a pledge was made to share the results with the public. A summary of the response will be presented to the school board and posted on the website at the end of March.
Additional research may be necessary as decisions get harder and more is known about the K-12 budget the Oregon legislature will adopt.
Later this spring, we’ll report the progress on this integrated research and public affairs effort to build a better way to read the mind of the public.
Link: Reynolds Tomorrow