Michael D. Clark reports:
It’s a weekday afternoon, but the leader of Mason Schools isn’t anywhere near a school. Instead, she’s sitting on an ottoman in Diane Pfennig’s living room.
Gathered around Mason Superintendent Gail Kist-Kline are a half-dozen school mothers, all making some history as this top education official of their Warren County community pioneers a very personal way of reaching out to them.
It’s a scene increasingly common as superintendents across Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky are creatively reaching out to their residents to better connect, persuade and enlist support in these budget-conscious times.
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Years of stagnant or lagging state funding are fueling the trend. While Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s proposed school funding plan is generally well-received – 22 of Southwest Ohio’s 49 school districts would receive more money – lean budgets continue to be the norm.
Mason, which has consistently been among Ohio’s top 10 academic performers the past decade, once boasted a school levy winning streak that dated to 1970. But that streak ended in 2011 when residents rejected by a wide margin an operating tax hike, resulting in millions of dollars in school budget cuts.
“One of the things I’d like to hear from you,” Kist-Kline tells the group, “is what we shouldn’t cut in our schools. One thing we know from listening to parents is that we shouldn’t hurt the quality of our schools.”
The moms begin to pepper her with questions. Their concerns about cuts in college preparatory courses, sports and busing come tumbling out.
Afterward, Pfennig describes the superintendent as “approachable.”
Fellow school parent Betsy Webb says school board meetings, where anyone wanting to speak is limited to three minutes at a microphone, “can be hard for some people. This format is more conducive for open discussion.”
Superintendents for years limited their public appearances to school board meetings and large community events as part of school tax levy campaigns.
Not anymore. Consider:
• In Hamilton County’s Three Rivers district you may run into Superintendent Rhonda Bohannon on a high school football Friday night as she helps out in the concession stand or sits next to you at a pancake breakfast fundraiser.
• Karen Mantia, superintendent of Lakota Schools in Butler County, has taken to interacting with the public at local coffee shops, churches and Q&A sessions at local libraries.
• In Warren County’s Kings Schools, superintendent Valerie Browning has popularized community meetings.
• Northern Kentucky schools are far less dependent on local school taxes, but leaders are experimenting with new ways of personally bolstering ties with their communities. This summer, Newport Schools Superintendent Kelly Middleton visited dozens of homes and introduced himself at sporting events to drum up support.
Making stakeholders out of all residents
Thomas Ash is a 40-year veteran of Ohio schools and director of governmental relations for Ohio’s Buckeye Association of School Administrators. He says public outreach is becoming the new norm for superintendents.
“There is no one public for a school district,” Ash says. “There are several – parents, young adults without children, senior citizens, other empty nesters, employees, business organizations, organized anti-tax groups, labor unions and the list could go on. Not reaching out to the many publics in a school district undermines the mission of the district.”
Kist-Kline surprises her home visit group when she reveals that “65 percent of our community now does not have children in the schools. Education is shifting, and that is part of what I want to communicate.”
Mantia, who leads Southwest Ohio’s second-largest school system, says there’s a commonality to more superintendents being more public.
“It is a deliberate move to take the conversation away from the typical – the school levy – to a deeper conversation about the future of children,” Mantia says.
Veteran superintendent Bohannon says the new outreach is no fad.
“Our community engagement has been very different the last two years. We try to informally keep the discussions as ongoing conversations,” Bohannon says.
That’s easier to do in smaller districts like Three Rivers.
As much as Cincinnati Public Schools Superintendent Mary Ronan may want to, the sheer size of being Ohio’s third-largest district (enrollment 33,000) is problematic for such efforts.
Dawn Grady, a CPS spokeswoman, says her district is too big for the personalized interactions. But Superintendent Ronan, Grady says, does do a fair amount of face-time with the community through regular community conversations in the evening and schedules them in several communities throughout the city so parents don’t have to travel so far.■
School parents now customers
Middleton says school leaders understand they need to start seeing customers where they used to see only school parents. With more competition and aggressive solicitation from charter and parochial schools, parents can and will go elsewhere.
“I’ve knocked on doors and introduced myself to the community and I’m on Facebook and Twitter all the time,” he says.
Mason parent Sandra Busch said residents are tired of being courted only during tax levy campaigns, tired of being passive recipients of grim pronouncements of looming school cuts. The overall effect was one of being “held hostage,” she says, to one-way, top-down communications from superintendents.
This way is better, says Busch, because “nobody has ever asked us this much about how we feel.”
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