Community Engagement: The Basics, or “I Want My Agendas”

Click on image for this report and other resources from the Annenberg Institute

Click on image for this report and other community engagement resources from the Annenberg Institute

As Robert Godfrey noted recently, The Madison Metropolitan School District has been remiss in sending Board of Education agenda updates to those of us who have requested them.  No agendas for the Monday, March 2 meetings reached my mailbox (it is on the web site and I’ve posted it here).  The last agenda I received was for December 1, 2008.  By my count that makes seven sets of meetings in a row without agendas being sent.

I believe that the elected and appointed leadership of MMSD are sincere in their expressed desires for more and better community engagement.  Yet I am confounded by the continued lack of attention to details like this.

Some portion of the community responded to the offer of regular Board of Education agendas and updates via email, indicating a great degree of interest and engagement.  Instead of satisfying this interest and building on this engagement, the district has only sporadically fulfilled their promise.

In discussions of community engagement, I’ve heard some (not all) Board members give sneering comments  about seeing and hearing from  the same people week after week.   I’m one of those people and I can tell the Board that by treating those already engaged in this manner — belittling our interest, neglecting to send the requested agendas, failing to respond to emails… –, you give others little or no reason to engage.

Here are some simple, off the top of my head suggestions to improve communication and engagement.

  • Send the agendas to those who have requested them.
  • Archive the agendas and related documents in an easily accessible manner (posting the related documents was a huge move forward, but once the next set of items is posted the old ones are almost impossible to find).
  • Approve and post meeting minutes in a timely fashion (this has been hit-or-miss, the last regular meeting minutes posted are from January 12, the last special open session are for November 10, the meetings of the new committees appear to be up-to date).
  • Respond to emails, even if only with an auto-reply.
  • Consider engaging in dialogue with those who testify on agenda items (the Board used to do this on occasion, other local bodies do it all the time, it has been a long time since I’ve seen it happen with the School Board; it would be illegal to have a dialogue on non-agenda items).

I want to applaud the initiatives to improve communication like assigning Board members to sets of schools, holding more meetings in more locations and even the new governance structure that all-but-guarantees at least one week between  an item being introduced via a committee and that item being voted on by the Board as a whole.  These are good, but they are no substitute for taking care of the most basic things.  I want my agendas.

Clarification – Whenever I have made specific requests to MMSD staff for information, they have been great about responding and providing that information (if possible) in a timely fashion.  This isn’t about that, it is about the list advertised at the top of the Current Agendas page:  “You can get BOE Agendas delivered directly to your e-mail inbox and more generally about communication and openness.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under Best Practices, education, Local News, Uncategorized

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