A not-so-welcoming school board webpage, lack of community willingness to use the board’s current options for engagement and input, a lack of accessibility to public comments, and more.
The Scarsdale Board of Education’s Community Engagement Committee recently acknowledged they have a lot of work in front of them. Formed last fall, the committee is charged with finding ways to improve transparency through better communication and increased engagement with the community overall.
The goal is “not just communication, it’s involvement,” school board President Pam Fuehrer said.
As a first step to improve board-community interaction this year, the board hosted a listening session on Wednesday. For a morning meeting, the turnout was noteworthy.
More than 30 residents joined a several school officials and employees of community-based agencies for a discussion with the board about how best to connect with and educate the community about school district projects and goals as well as how to solicit feedback from a more informed public.
All sorts of ideas flowed from representatives of the Scarsdale Forum, the library board, the League of Women Voters, Scarsdale Adult School, the PT Council, PTAs, and neighborhood associations — as well as a few newcomers. The school board president took notes on a flip chart while people shared their views about what’s working and what could be improved.
Suggestions ranged from implementing more board coffees and visits at neighborhood schools, to soliciting more input from students, focus groups and community-based experts. Others asked for a better job of providing clear, comprehensive and timely information, as well as longer lead times to respond to board proposals. Other suggestions included enlisting community groups and neighborhood associations to help notify residents about important school issues along with the meeting dates and times when specific issues would be discussed.
We applaud the board’s welcoming posture in hosting such an open conversation, but we agree with the resident who said the board needs to be more proactive in reaching out and seeking involvement from the whole of the community — not just the “the usual suspects” and the parents of school children.
Many of the board’s current methods of communication have been in place for decades — the back-to-school articles written by superintendents, updates published in “Insight,” the district’s quarterly newsletter, and the periodic eblasts to residents who sign up via the district’s website to receive emails about board meetings and school topics.
We wonder how many residents don’t even know about the eblast opt-in. Don’t you have to be part of “the club” to even know the club exists?
The board says it’s proud of its growing social media presence on some platforms, but they don’t have an active presence on nonacademic platforms like the Scarsdale Buzz Facebook group, where many residents exchange information and points of view about the schools. At the very least, we hope the board members are reading what’s being posted.
School board members say they want to advocate for the community by becoming more deeply connected to local legislators and political entities. They want to increase school board collaboration with the mayor and the village board of trustees. They want to increase opportunities for in-person feedback with the board, and start tracking engagement statistics to better understand and manage the effectiveness of their communication efforts.
School board members have rolled up their sleeves and are poised to work hard at getting their messages out, to engage with the community and to elicit feedback on key topics and issues. And, most of all, to listen to what’s being said.
But it’s a two-way street.
The success of the board’s new communications approach will be dependent on residents actively engaging and responding to the board’s outreach. We hope the community will meet them halfway. There’s wisdom in the old saw: if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
The next listening session is scheduled on Feb. 25 at 7:30 p.m. in room 170 at Scarsdale High School. It’s taking place in the evening to accommodate anyone who prefers to meet after work or after dinner.