Column: School board listens to peoples suggestions

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 21, 2007

By Bill Leland, No. 2 Pencil

In opening, allow me to thank Together Education Achieves More and the community for all of the hard work involved in communicating and debating the needs of the two operating levy referendum questions recently approved by the citizens of the Albert Lea Area Schools.

The passage of these two referendum questions was not the only successful outcome of this process; a longstanding Albert Lea school board goal was addressed &8212; public communication. We have worked hard on this goal and with wise counsel and reflection, this goal will be enhanced and become even more effective.

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Clearly, there are some community members, whether for or against the referendum questions, that feel there is a need for improvement in how the school board communicates. It should not be a surprise that the board desires more success in communication as well.

Suggestions these past few months for improving communication between the school district and community were plentiful and were not lost on inattentive ears. However, one idea that concerns me the most was the suggestion for the school board to act like something we are not. We are not the Albert Lea City Council, Freeborn County Board or Minnesota Legislature.

Your school board is about as close to grass-roots politics as you can get, and I have never seen grass-root politics done by remote control. If community members desire true dialogue and change, they must do more than read, write and watch others.

Personal engagement is paramount to understanding the needs of your school district. The Community Education Advisory Council, the Budget Advisory Committee, the District Curriculum Committee, the Special Education Advisory Council and the Student Advisory Group are examples of five easy opportunities for involvement for community members desiring education and/or input into how our schools educate our students. In addition, board workshops and meetings are open to the public.

Part of the equation for a successful community school system is the vigorous attendance of community members at these meetings. The other piece is healthy community dialogue about the current and future student needs and capacities. Patience, mutual respect, trust and compromise make up another part of the equation.

A prime example is the suggestion to put board meetings and school events on public-access television. This idea has been considered and investigated several times and been discussed as a part of the board agenda over the past few years.

The evaluation did not simply amount to how it would help in communicating the actions and events of the school district. We also needed to determine if we were ready to use this communication technique in conjunction with whether it was an appropriate use of financial resources and personnel. The fact that we presently do not use this medium does not mean the idea was a bad one, but in turn should not be used as the poster child for how the district is failing in communicating to the public.

Another idea is to eliminate the board workshop and absorb it into the regular meeting. On the surface, this might be another good idea. My first question, however, would be what is preventing anyone from coming to the workshop in the first place?

The workshop is a great vehicle to hear and understand issues being explored by the school district. Ideas discussed there in the more casual format of conversation and information sharing may evolve, disappear, resurface or be sent to committee for study.

Eventually each topic may die or develop to a point where that idea or issue is brought to the board for formal consideration. Again, if the suggestion to eliminate the workshop is not implemented, it does not mean it was ignored.

Be assured that these two ideas and others, which surfaced during the referendum campaign, will be discussed within the ongoing effort to improve communication with our school community.

In the meantime, our public school board workshops begin at 5 p.m. The door is open, the media table is ready, and the chairs for community attendance are waiting to be occupied.

Bill Leland is the vice president of the Albert Lea Board of Education.