School board talks transparency, communication with community
The Summit School District Board of Education held a workshop about communication and transparency at its regular meeting Thursday, June 17.
President Kate Hudnut said in what has been a busy year for the board and district — including bringing on new board members and superintendents as well as managing the pandemic — communication adjusted with the rest of the district’s operations.
“With those big, sweeping changes brought on by COVID, we really shifted and looked at our protocols and looked at the way we were communicating with our Summit County residents and our parents and our students,” Hudnut said. “Although I know we really leaned in and came up with some innovative solutions for communication, there’s always room for improvement.”
The board invited Colorado Association of School Boards Executive Director Cheri Wrench to the meeting, where she highlighted the association’s recommendations and best practices regarding communication.
Wrench said Summit is not the only district she’s worked with facing challenges, as all schools had to learn a new way of operating “without a road map” amid the pandemic. She said there are currently about 38 districts in the state looking to fill superintendent positions.
She also said that as with everything else amid the pandemic, managing communication changed on a daily basis, especially in phases of transition like Summit has seen this year.
“Those transitions are really critical times for you and a really great opportunity for you to look at your communication styles and think about what are ways that we can highlight all the successes and how can our community get to know this new superintendent,” Wrench said.
Wrench said another best practice for school boards is to constantly evaluate and reflect on systems in place to see how they are operating, including tweaks that could be improved while also highlighting what is working well. She said having a new interim superintendent is a great opportunity for the board to outline these expectations early on.
Board Treasurer Chris Alleman questioned the delineation of board and district communication and the role the board plays in communicating with constituents, particularly what is expected of the board versus what is not appropriate.
District Director of Communications Mikki Grebetz said she works directly with Hudnut regarding any matter involving the board, and any board member should work directly with the president regarding communication matters.
Grebetz also said individual board members cannot speak on behalf of the entire board when responding to questions, rather only on behalf of themselves as community members.
Wrench said this is board policy and something viewed as a best practice across the state. She also said district communication plans should outline regular communication practices that will build trust and create opportunities for transparency within the community.
Wrench said building relationships with community stakeholders can help streamline the trust-building process, but taking small steps and setting clear expectations of how the board wants to operate and build trust can help as well.
She added that understanding what the community says it’s holding the board accountable for will be easier if there is clear and consistent communication about board processes. Wrench also recommended explaining key talking points behind a decision that will make it easier for the community to understand.
Grebetz added that engaging with the community in the ways the board members know best can increase trust, because the board members have their own connections to the community.
Hudnut brought up personnel matters, something community members often have questions about because these conversations happen behind closed doors in an executive session that isn’t open to the public.
Wrench explained that public discussion of personnel matters is prohibited by both board policy and the law.
“This is not just the law that we’re following and board policy, but it’s also our belief that it’s about respect for individuals, and we wouldn’t want that out there as public discussion,” Wrench said as an example of how she would respond to questions about personnel matters.
Board member Tracey Carish wondered if the board could build time into their meetings to highlight key communication points for the community. She said oftentimes community members won’t be able to sit through an entire board meeting and will not realize issues they want to be addressed have been talked about in public for a long time.
Alleman said this comes back to managing expectations and doing what the board can to prepare the community for discussions and decisions ahead of time.
While the board did not leave the discussion with any concrete communication plans, Hudnut said the board, along with its new superintendent, will work to determine how to best “be fluid and responsive to the needs of the community.”
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