School districts need the trust of the public to operate well, and districts effectively build trust by being accountable and transparent, communicating well, and listening to the concerns of the community. That’s why community relations is one of the most important jobs of any school board. This issue of School Leader includes an article about the fundamentals of community relations, which I urge you to read. It begins on page 32.

Often, face-to-face interaction with the community has the greatest impact. Recently, I spoke at one of my district’s annual programs – the kindergarten orientation. While the youngsters meet their teachers, visit their classrooms and take a ride in a school bus, the parents assemble to hear the superintendent, the principal and the board president share important information about the schools. Taking the time to talk with parents in person is a great way to begin building a relationship.

As board president, my mission at this gathering is to educate the parents about what the board of education does. Typically, the audience doesn’t really understand the role of the board. I talk about how our job is not to run the schools, but to make sure they are well-run. I explain how and why we develop policy, how we develop the school’s annual budget, and how we approve personnel – upon the recommendations of the administration. I point out that on our current board, every member currently has, or has had, children in the school district, so we share the same interests and concerns. I also tell the parents that if they have concerns with a teacher, they should first speak to the teacher, then to the principal, and then, if the matter is not resolved, to the superintendent.

Face-to-face contact isn’t the only strategy we use to get our message out and build a school community. Like many districts, we use a wide variety of tools, such as our district website and newsletter, direct correspondence with families, Facebook and Twitter, our automated call system, and press releases. Our school board meeting minutes are posted on the website. I also write and post a formal monthly report as board president.

Whatever mechanisms you use, the goal should be the same: provide factual information and build collaboration. Nothing is more critical to our role as board members than enabling the advancement of student achievement. Collaboration among parents, district staff, the board and the community-at-large is vital to that goal.

We’re all in the venture of educating the next generation together. The adage that “it takes a village to raise a child” is true. It is equally true that it takes clear, effective communication to first create that village.

Donald Webster, Jr. president, NJSBA