The pandemic and the other social upheavals of the past two years have severely challenged school districts and school boards. School board meetings have become battlegrounds. School board members have been physically threatened and harassed by citizens who disagree with a board policy or decision. Well-regarded and successful superintendents have been fired or forced to resign as new board members with radically different agendas are elected.
Beyond this, governors and legislatures have increasingly acted to supersede local school boards, especially regarding instruction. In Indiana, legislation was passed requiring teachers to post lesson plans a year in advance. In Virginia, the governor established a “tip line” for citizens to report teachers, schools, or districts perceived to be promoting “divisive” content. In Florida, certain math books have been banned by the state because of allegedly “prohibited topics.” The concept of local control of schools, long a fundamental governing principle in our country, continues to be significantly undermined.
While this is all very disconcerting, and even appalling at times, it should not be surprising. Schools have always reflected what is happening in the larger society. The unrelenting incivility and rancor so evident in our politics, in the media, and across the Internet were bound to spill over into local communities through their schools.
In this environment, school boards can either allow themselves to be buffeted by the powerful current of events or proactively figure out how to move forward in spite of the turmoil. A major challenge of trying to move forward is acknowledging that the folks disrupting school board meetings and getting superintendents fired expect to have a seat at the table. While they should not be allowed to take over or dominate, their point of view must be part of the discussion. Otherwise, they will simply continue with their current tactics.
Strategic planning that brings community stakeholders together in an open and collaborative way could be a very rational response to this often-irrational state of affairs. Strategic planning is a process by which a school district collaborates with its community to develop a long-term roadmap. Such a plan typically covers a five-year span and ideally utilizes a wide range of stakeholder input in its development.
The best and most effective strategic plans emerge from assessing the district’s current status and needs, setting specific goals, identifying strategies to meet these goals, and establishing measurable benchmarks to track progress. Strategies developed for meeting goals should be research-based and include an honest assessment of how current resources might be redirected to more productive practices.
Following is a series of steps and practical ideas for developing a strong, stakeholder-driven strategic plan:
Setting the Stage
Establishing a strategic steering committee to guide the strategic planning process is an essential first step. The steering committee should consist of 25-30 staff and community members and represent the broadest possible swath of community perspectives, including some whose points of view may be challenging. There also needs to be a strong, organized staff member to be the point person for coordinating the logistics of the process.
It is both appropriate and expedient to involve some members of the staff and school board in this work. However, their number should be limited so that the process is not perceived as internally driven. The proportion of staff and school board members directly involved in the work should not exceed 50% of the overall number of participants. Less is probably better, although this might be difficult in smaller communities. Further, it is advisable and advantageous to utilize external facilitation in order to moderate excessive influence by any one constituency.
It is also imperative that there are structures in place to communicate with the board and the larger community about the progress of the strategic plan. A dedicated link on the district website can be a very effective communication tool. Consistent transparency will be essential in terms of fostering trust in the final product. Those directly involved in the work can also serve as very important “ambassadors” to the community about the strategic plan.
Starting the Work
The strategic plan steering committee needs to come together for several days, three days is about right, to openly discuss the strengths, needs, and aspirations of their district. This group would ultimately reach a consensus on an updated mission statement along with five-year goals in areas like instruction, personnel, student support services, facilities, community involvement and collaboration, etc. It is important to note that the development of a strategic plan is best done based on consensus versus majority vote in order to foster “buy-in” and support when the plan is implemented.
At the conclusion of this work, the draft strategic plan developed by the steering committee should be widely disseminated. At the same time, additional people need to be recruited to work on action plans to meet the goals that have been agreed to by the steering committee.
Developing Action Plans
For this phase of the process, it is important for additional community members, particularly those with expertise in the areas to be addressed in the action plans, to be involved. A wide cross-section of the community needs to be engaged in this stage of the work. That said, members of the steering committee also need to be involved in action teams to foster a level of overall continuity.
Action teams are organized based on the categories of goals established by the steering committee. The people working on action plans should be placed on teams based on an area of particular interest and expertise. For example, it would be extremely beneficial to have a mental health professional involved in developing action plans for student support services. A chair or co-chairs should be appointed to lead action-team work and coordinate with the staff point person. Training for the action team leaders, possibly done by an outside facilitator, is also advisable.
Action teams should work over approximately 100 calendar days to develop specific action plans to meet the agreed-upon goals. The development of action plans needs to include both a review of best practices and a thorough cost-benefit analysis. The coordinator for the process needs to stay connected with the action teams during this period to ensure that everything is moving along in a productive way. Document-sharing technology can be a big help here.
An important part of the work of action teams is to seriously consider the “strategic abandonment” of some existing practices in order to free up resources for more effective practices.
When their work is completed, action teams present their proposed action plans to the steering committee for approval and revisions. Again, all of this should be based on consensus.
Board Approval and Implementation
The entire strategic plan, including the original work by the steering committee and the action plans, should then be presented to the school board for further public discussion, feedback, possible adjustment, and approval. It is beneficial for members of the steering committee or action team members to present the various aspects of the plan to the board.
It must be understood that at this point in the process, it is the board’s prerogative to make changes to what has been presented. If a good communications structure has been in place all along, the board should not be surprised or caught off guard by what is presented.
Once the plan is adopted, implementation becomes a superintendent/staff function. It is excellent practice to bring the school board and the community regular updates on the progress of implementation. The strategic plan should also be a foundational document as the board deliberates its yearly budget.
Bringing all stakeholders together, especially ones who have perceived themselves as being ignored or dismissed, will not eliminate conflict. However, a stakeholder-driven strategic plan can foster solid long-term decision-making and promote a sense of community ownership in the decisions impacting a district. This process can also help to incorporate the lessons learned from the challenges of the pandemic into a district’s long-term direction.
Such an inclusive endeavor is undoubtedly time-consuming and definitely messy. But the current tumult is not productive and is seriously impeding the progress and improvement that are needed, particularly in the aftermath of the past two years.
A well-constructed strategic plan that is based on stakeholder consensus can serve as a catalyst for both necessary educational improvement and a renewed sense of community trust in their schools. Such a plan has the potential to enable a district to transcend politics and truly put the focus on students.
When all is said and done, students are why schools exist.
Frank E. Morgan (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Kevin C. Castner (email@example.com) are retired superintendents who consult with school districts on strategic planning and superintendent searches.