Three Ways to Increase Public Trust in School Boards

Even though the public discussion at meetings has become more acrimonious and politicized, school boards still need to take into account significant issues that could have long-term repercussions.

As Education Week reported on Wednesday, some school boards have limited the time allotted for public comment, which can be quite long at times, out of expediency.

Jonathan Collins, an assistant professor of political science at Brown University who studies the relationships that school boards have with their constituents, stated that this is an unfortunate decision.

He stated, “Closing opportunities for accountability and transparency creates these domino effects,” including the difficulty of tailoring community-specific policy.

Collins offered suggestions for how boards can alter routines to increase parent trust.

He stated that these strategies will ensure that more parents and members of the general public feel welcome at the decision-making table, despite the fact that they may not silence the loudest critics.

Change The Location Of The Meetings To One That Is More Familiar

Moving school board meetings from the central office to the gym or cafeteria of their neighborhood school could be enough to get more parents involved.

According to Collins, removing the obstacles that prevent the general public—whether or not they are pleased with their schools—from participating in discussions is necessary.

First of all, formal public meetings can be hard to get to and intimidating. Collins suggested that school boards should think about holding listening sessions and meetings on occasion at school sites, which parents are more familiar with.

By broadcasting meetings online and accepting virtual public comments, some districts have also sought to make them more accessible.

The bright side: Public opinion polls still show that many people support their own districts, despite the fact that disagreements regarding education policy have increasingly taken center stage in polarizing national political discussions.

54% of respondents gave their community’s public schools an A or B in an annual PDK International poll that was released in August, and 45% gave their schools a C, D, or “fail” rating. That is a 10 percentage point increase from 2019 and the highest percentage of A or B ratings in the poll’s 48-year history.

Engage In Thoughtful Discussions

Collins said that school boards shouldn’t just listen to public comments at monthly meetings and move on without responding.

Instead, they should look for ways to hold bidirectional discussions and workshops that work together with teachers, students, parents, and district residents. Unlike formal meetings, these events provide opportunities for the general public to discuss solutions in small groups.

In Collins’ research, which he summarizes in a 2021 study, he showed a group of people video clips of school board meetings and asked them how they felt about them.

He discovered that participants were more likely to exhibit “increased trust in local officials and a stronger willingness to attend school board meetings in the future” when they watched videos of meetings in which there was no public participation or in which the public participated but did not receive a response from the board.

Make It Clear How Public Feedback Will Be Used To Make Decisions

Collins stated that discussion and feedback cannot be staged. If constituents know how their ideas will be used to make decisions, they are more likely to participate in the future.

He made the observation that the focus needs to be practical rather than abstract.

Community design sessions, typically held by consultants to assist in the design of new school building plans, are a common method of open discussion for school board members. However, far too frequently, these discussions result in a lot of exuberant fantasies that are unlikely to be incorporated into the final formal plans.

Collins stated, “People come to these workshops and talk to other people.” They use large white papers and brightly colored markers, but it’s hard to see how what they say now affects what they will eventually see.

According to Collins, public members should be aware of how their input will be gathered, how their priorities will be represented in discussions and reported to interested parties, and opportunities for future follow-up in order to truly benefit from participating.

Districts have used community workshops based on this model to get feedback on COVID-19 academic recovery strategies, make approaches to social-emotional learning, and even look at student achievement data in a way that is easy to understand.

The ability of boards to say, “Here’s what you told us” is essential. What we will do with it next is as follows. And here’s how this concept has evolved and changed in response to what you’re saying, “Collins stated.

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