Victoria Independent School District was one of many districts in the Texas golden crescent directly impacted by Hurricane Harvey in late August 2017. In the course of the past 12 months, VISD has incurred renovation costs in excess of $6 million. This amount will likely rise to nearly $10 million at the conclusion of all renovations. Of those costs, reimbursements by insurance, FEMA, and the U.S. Department of Education have totaled approximately $1.5 million to date.
The lag in payments is borne with unrestricted fund balances. These direct costs, combined with indirect costs (loss of student enrollment, decreased assessed community valuation, a homeless population that has more than doubled, etc.), and with depressed funding from the state created a scenario where the Victoria began contemplating enacting Texas Tax Code 26.08 (a).
This code states, “When increased expenditure of money by a school district is necessary to respond to a disaster, including a tornado, hurricane, flood, or other calamity, but not including a drought, that has impacted a school district and the governor has requested federal disaster assistance for the area in which the school district is located, an election is not required under this section to approve the tax rate adopted by the governing body for the year following the year in which the disaster occurs.” This would allow the Victoria to raise the Maintenance and Operations Tax rate by $0.13 for the 2019 tax year without a community vote.
With this great challenge in front of Victoria, the district was transitioning superintendents at the same time. As I was entering the district, I wanted to communicate a sense of total transparency, and a willingness to build trust and establish myself as a leader with integrity (to live up to the standard set by my predecessor). So much of the work we accomplish is reliant on the trust our community has in our leadership. I recognized the community did not know me, and thus I couldn’t rely on historical trust relationships.
I, along with the school board, committed to radical transparency and devotion to communications strategies (both incoming communications and outgoing communications). With the help of my communications director (Shawna Currie), we agreed to meet our community members where they are. This effort could not have been successful without the full support of the board, who recognized this effort was necessary in order to build trust and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with me throughout the process. Through this commitment, we felt confident that although not everyone agrees with the decision being made, far more people have had the opportunity to participate in any format to which they are comfortable.
We are all comfortable with a traditional community forum. These are the community meetings where we present information and take questions from our audience. We committed to two community forums for our community specific to this tax increase. The first was not well attended. Once word started to spread, however, the second had much greater attendance (nearly 10 times the number of people came to the second forum). We committed to answering all questions at and after the forum. We were fortunate that our local media (both paper and television) was present and the first forum and both ran stories to help encourage people to attend. A community forum is within all our “wheelhouses” and certainly I am not telling you anything you don’t know.
During the community forums, our communications coordinator also set up a Facebook Live stream of the forum. The first live stream gathered some interest and some questions were presented, and we deemed this a success. The second forum was also livestreamed and the virtual turnout topped 2,500 views! Imagine an important community forum with 2,500 attendees. The interest and participation were high, and we were grateful to connect with so many people in this way.
Also during the community forum period, we used a digital tool called ThoughtExchange. We asked, “what questions do you have as it relates to the $0.13 tax increase”. ThoughtExchange allows a user to ask a question online and then read the questions of others. They are asked to “star” the questions other people have and that helped us sort out which questions are most important to all the people using this tool. I made the decision to utilize social media by tweeting out some of the responses and encouraged people to keep asking questions. This was an effort to keep the conversation going and spur interest.
In short, we were able to asynchronously reach people in four very different venues over the course of two very short weeks. By working with traditional media (television and newspaper), holding in-person meetings, hosting online live feeds, and offering a digital platform, every person in our community could participate in the dialogue however they wanted and at any time they could be available.
As previously stated, we know not everyone agrees with this tax rate increase proposal, but we feel confident everyone had the opportunity to become informed and ask questions. Too often, we forget people just cannot make it to a meeting because it just is not convenient. It’s not that they do not care; they are just unable to participate. Further, the multigenerational approach to communication forces us to recognize that different generations are asking us to communicate in different ways. We need to be adept at traditional media, in-person meetings, social media, online forums, and digital tools. Anything we can do to piggyback our efforts by combining traditional forums with online forums helps lessen the resource burden.
For several years, I thought administrators needed to be responsive with our communications. I have stopped using the word responsive and have started using aggressive. I don’t use the word to mean hostile or combative, but rather forceful and assertive. It is the paradigm shift from being reactive to proactive. An aggressive communications strategy simply means we are going to think through all communications strategies available to us prior to any communications campaign and be purposeful about which forms of communication we use and why.
Lastly, the often-missing puzzle piece in savvy communications strategy is not just gathering input but responding to the input received. By answering the questions of our community at the forums and through Facebook live, we honored the feelings and input of our community. Further, many of the top thoughts in the ThoughtExchange was responded to as well. To be sure, these answers forced us to ask difficult questions of ourselves and confront our reality squarely. We never want to become the “black hole” of communications, where information gets in but nothing ever comes back out.
Often, where you stand on an issue largely depends on where you sit… by sitting with our community wherever they were (whether on a couch in their living room, at a community forum, watching TV, or anywhere else), we were able to stand with them when it came to making the best decision possible on behalf of our kids.
Quintin Shepherd (Quintin.firstname.lastname@example.org) is superintendent of Texas’ Victoria Independent School District. Previously, he was superintendent in Linn-Mar Community School District in Iowa and in District 69 Skokie/Morton Grove in Illinois.