School Board Discusses Communication Plan

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Thursday April 28, 2016

The South Burlington School District has faced a number of big issues over the past couple of years, including a debate over whether fifth graders should move to the middle school, receiving an offer for the purchase of the Rick Marcotte Central School property, and contemplating a name change for the high school sports teams. As those topics have come up, and now, as the district finds itself deep in the throes of a master planning and visioning process, questions around how to communicate progress on such issues have been raised. Is the board communicating enough and through the best channels to reach residents? What about social media? The board worked through these questions at a special meeting on April 11.

The school board’s meetings are open to the public and recorded by Regional Education Television Network (RETN), agendas and meeting minutes are posted on the district website, and every meeting is summarized in The Other Paper, along with related in-depth coverage of current school topics. Currently, the school district has a feedback button on their website where people can leave comments. In addition, all of the school board members’ e-mails and phone numbers are listed on the site for the public’s convenience. If an e-mail is received through the board e-mail, schoolboard@sbschools.net, Chair Patrick Leduc sends it to Superintendent David Young and it is decided if the entire board needs to weigh in prior to responding.

Recently, the board has been debating, in this age of social media, if they can engage even further with the community. How the board receives and distributes information was the primary point of conversation at the Monday night meeting.

Last year, a master planning and visioning task force worked to develop potential future school configuration options as a result of growing pressures on city and school infrastructure and changing demographics. A final report from this task force was presented to the board last summer along with recommendations on how to move forward. Two members of the task force, Monica Ostby and Abby Crocker, drafted a minority report as well. Their participation on the task force inspired them to begin a Facebook group and blog called South Burlington Community Watch. The idea is to provide another avenue for people to exchange information about city and school meetings, agenda items, and community events. As stated on their page, the goal is to, “provide an easy way for South Burlington School Board and city council members to see what the public thinks while it evaluates the recommendation made by the South Burlington superintendent.”

On the community watch page and blog, Ostby and Crocker add that, “The purpose is to share information regarding the school board and city council actions in response to the many changes being discussed for our town, and to organize attendance for important meetings. It is not our mission to push one position or “option.”

Postings from the Facebook page are regularly transferred to the blog and as of March 22, the date of the community meeting regarding master planning and visioning, the blog became dedicated to sharing information, questions, and concerns around that topic.

However,there is concern for the board regarding the open meeting law in terms of becoming involved in Facebook dialogues, as well as a concern that one person’s response to a question could come across as being representative of the entire board. The city council is also currently discussing these issues.

Board member Elizabeth Fitzgerald, who said she had looked at the South Burlington Community Watch blog, expressed concern that when information is excerpted from other sources, often only a handful of people see the original message and the intent could be misinterpreted when taken out of context. She noted that if the board owned a page, then they could control the content, and eliminate the possibility of distorted or incomplete information. Fitzgerald also mentioned discussion prompts being provided on the blog, such as “what do you think about X scenario?” She said this could lead to the impression that the board is working on and/or considering topics that they are not. “It raised more red flags than I thought it would initially,” Fitzgerald said.

Crocker, who was present at the board meeting, explained that the group is a way for people to share information and receive answers to questions. If she or Ostby know the answer to a query offhand, then they will respond, but they also offer to bring questions to board meetings for those who cannot attend in person.

Board member Martin LaLonde acknowledged that the community watch blog and Facebook pages serve a purpose and have brought together a group of community members, but hesitated to go so far as to suggest the board develop their own page.

The board agreed that as far as any medium is concerned, responding for the purpose of clarifications is fine, but Chair Patrick Leduc thought it might be prudent to develop a communication policy around social media to hold each other accountable across the various channels available. “It’s important to articulate to the community why we need to operate in a certain way, through policy governance,” Leduc said, “but we do want feedback and engagement.”

While a school board Facebook page is not in the cards at the moment, if you have a question or concern around a school issue, contact a board member by phone or e-mail, attend a meeting, or e-mail the entire board.

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent