PHOTO CREDIT: JULIEN EICHINGER/STOCK.ADOBE.COM
When Jeff Horton took over as superintendent of Minnesota’s Gibbon Fairfax Winthrop Public Schools in July 2020, he knew he needed some communications help. The 700-student district was in financial straits, with a negative 12% fund balance, and voters had rejected operating levies twice in the past three years.
A third levy was scheduled for August 2020—“41 days from the day I started,” Horton notes—and the threat of a state takeover loomed if it did not pass.
Horton, who previously had worked as a building-level and central office administrator in two larger districts, believed that communications support was crucial to the district’s turnaround. He also knew he didn’t have the money—or the time, given the short turnaround—to hire a staff person to help provide that support.
“I had learned a lot from working in those two settings, and I knew that communications—two-way communications—had to be a priority,” Horton says. “If we’re not telling the story, someone else is. If people do not feel like they’re being heard, they won’t support you. It really is that simple.”
Horton hired a public relations firm to help him develop an engagement campaign that included home visits and meetings at local diners in the three small communities the district serves. He also met with the media, city officials, and local legislators.
“Everything we did was measurable and objective, so we could go back and say, ‘You asked, here’s how we delivered,’” Horton says. “And when we couldn’t do what they wanted, we could say why.”
Horton says the 41-day flurry was worth it. Three years after 81% of voters rejected the operating levy, the 2020 tax increase passed with 53% support.
“People said that it was the first time they’d really felt engaged, listened to, and valued in our community,” Horton says. “With the operating debt, the district had been forced to reduce programming and staffing, and that was really hard and really painful. We needed to go out, listen, and clearly explain what we were trying to do.”
In an ideal world, school districts would hire a communications staff to handle this important work. But many small districts do not have the resources or the community support for “public relations.” They do have options, however, from traditional PR firms to individuals and companies that specialize in school communications.
Horton’s district works with the Center for Effective School Operations (CESO), a Minneapolis-based company that works with 125 school districts in 25 states. Formed in 2008 as a transportation consulting company, CESO provides human resources, technology, finance, and communications to districts.
Bob Noyed, who leads the 16-person communications team, spent more than 30 years as a communications director for suburban districts in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. A former president of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), he knows the value of having internal positions and the financial and political realities that exist in districts.
“One of our approaches is to say to superintendents, ‘We understand that you’re not huge and that you can’t hire a full-time person, but that doesn’t diminish the need you have,’” Noyed says. “You still need to communicate with the public in the way the public expects. You still need to make some level of investment in this area.”
CESO’s services include ongoing support ranging from tactical communications functions to crisis communications, branding, and marketing campaigns.
Since Noyed joined the company in 2019, his division has “grown significantly.” Part of the reason, he believes, is the pandemic put an emphasis on how districts are communicating with parents and the community.
“The hunger for regular communications has grown, no question,” he says. “It has forced school districts and all organizations to not only communicate more, but also more effectively. And many school districts need some expertise to do that.”
Since the operating levy passed, Horton has used federal COVID relief funds to build on the district’s academic and career and technical education programs, adding 100 “new opportunities” for its students. The district has increased its fund balance, and, in April, voters passed a bond referendum to build a new centralized school that will serve the three communities.
CESO provides consulting services, updates the district’s website, translates materials sent to the district’s Latinx community, and edits videos shot by staff members into short vignettes.
“We’ve built some really good internal communications processes in our district,” says Horton who was named as one of NSPRA’s 25 Superintendents to Watch in 2021. “Despite all of the terrible things COVID brought, it also gave us permission to do things differently.”
Horton says he understands that a “robust communication process” is hard to find in many small districts, even though best practices say up to
10% of a system’s budget should be allocated for public outreach efforts.
“You don’t see that at all in rural districts. They get it done as they can get it done,” he says. “But there’s so much value to be found in it. Our strength has been in our listening, to understand where our parents and our community actually [are] and to know what they actually need.”
In his district, that means “highlighting our programming and our positive behavioral interventions for students,” among other things.
“We’ve really taken stuff to another level. We’re showing off our students and staff and highlighting them,” Horton says. “It’s very powerful for the community to see that and to know that we’re doing everything we can.”
Glenn Cook (firstname.lastname@example.org), a contributing editor to American School Board Journal, is a freelance writer and photographer in Northern Virginia. He also spent five years as a communications director for a North Carolina school district.
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