School district officials have agreed that the best way to deal with the public is a policy of don’t ask, do tell.
The Sedona-Oak Creek School District Governing Board decided Tuesday, Feb. 28, not to ask residents for comments, questions and suggestions for the direction of the district, opting instead to create a communication plan that would inform the public of what is happening in the schools, at the district level and the governing board.
The unanimous decision came at a brief public meeting that followed a work session in which board members, school principals and other administrators debated a proposal to develop a survey to solicit input from community members, parents, students and school district staff.
Board President Randy Hawley took the lead in supporting the survey proposal.
“I’ve been hearing a lot from the community … that their voice is not being asked for,” he said. “How can we involve the community? What are they looking for? What do they need? What do they like?”
He said it would be in the best interests of the district and the community to get as much information as possible and “develop a strategic plan for the district,” which would allow its leadership to be “proactive in addressing ideas, concerns and misconceptions.”
He suggested the survey be tailored to each group of stakeholders — community members, parents, staff and students.
Board Vice President Heather Hermen said a survey would “give the public a reason to have confidence” in the operation and direction of the district.
Board member Karen McClelland noted that the district has responded when it is aware of the public’s will, such as last year when residents made it clear they did not want the board to close Big Park Community School.
However, the tide began to turn against the proposal when Sedona Red Rock Junior High School Principal Jay Litwicki questioned whether the survey would produce valid results.
He said the tool would be helpful only if it were limited to a scientifically random sample, rather than open to all who choose to participate.
“People would select in because they have a bone to pick, so they would be overly represented in the survey,” he said. “Invalid data is worse than no data.”
Some of those participating in the work session suggested that most members of general public wouldn’t have the depth of knowledge necessary to provide useful feedback.
Sedona Red Rock High School assistant principal Deana DeWitt said she wasn’t opposed to a survey — saying it would be a good way to identify misconceptions — but wondered if residents would be aware of challenges to the district, such as changing demographics and meeting the needs of a diverse population.
She also noted that when people call for cutting administration costs, “Do they really know what that means? They need to see the bigger picture, to understand school financing.”
Hawley recalled a talk he had with a resident who wondered why declining school enrollment was a problem, when in fact the district had fewer students to spend its money on. The problem, of course, is that school funding is based primarily on enrollment.
Board member Karl Wiseman was skeptical about the survey, asking early in the discussion, “How does a parent survey help with the budget things we’re faced with?”
Later he asked, “Do you really think you’re going to get great ideas from them on how to run this district?”
It was Hawley who first mentioned the idea of a district communication plan, but it was Hermen who brought it to the forefront when it became apparent the survey proposal lacked support.
She suggested that a “real communication plan with real strategy and purpose … with back-and-forth conversations … can make [the community] feel their voice is being heard.”
Hawley said that when he was running for the school board last year the most important issue for residents was the lack of communication between the school district and the community. “That came through loud and clear.”
Herman responded, “That says to me — communication plan.”
McClelland said district officials will need public input as part of a strategic plan and that a communication plan would provide a foundation for a “higher starting level.”
Herman, who owns Front Burner Media, a public relations and marketing agency, volunteered to do the preliminary work on a communication plan and bring it back to the rest of the board in the next couple of weeks.
Board member Zach Richardson did not attend the work session or subsequent public meeting.