In the aftermath of a failed school funding referendum in April 2002, officials and board members from the Marquardt School District 15 in Illinois realized that a shortage of funds was not their only problem.
It had been 20 years since the last referendum in this district, which lies about 25 miles west of Chicago. The passing of so much time had created a communications problem as well: Because they hadn’t been asked to vote on additional school funding for so long, many members of the community had little understanding of the district’s overall financial picture. Moreover, they felt little connection to the district in other ways. Even many parents did not feel connected to the district, although they might have been very involved in their child’s individual school.
“The district has always been a good steward of funds,” says Bruce Barreras, a school board member. District officials and board members wanted to wait until they had a full and compelling list of new initiatives before asking the community for funding. “Our intention was not to nickel and dime the community to death,” Barreras explains.
District officials were asking for an amount that would have raised annual property taxes about $330 for the average taxpayer. They planned to use this additional money for a variety of programs and improvements, such as ensuring greater access to technology, reducing class size, hiring additional staff , adding foreign language instruction, improving security, and expanding their art and music programs.
District officials and board members realized that they needed to rebuild connections to the community. They began by cross-referencing people who had voted in the referendum with school registration lists, discovering that the primary stakeholders—that is, parents—had voted in very low numbers. Many were not even registered to vote. After a second failed referendum in November 2002 confirmed their data, they instituted a voter registration campaign.
The district registered an additional 600 to 700 new voters before the third referendum, which was held in April 2003 and passed easily. “We worked very hard not only to register voters but also to make phone calls on election day,” says Superintendent Loren May. “A surprising number of people hadn’t voted by mid-afternoon, so these phone calls clearly helped.”
Building Community Ties
After the referendum passed, district offi cials went to work to ensure that the community had easy access to information. They re-established a newsletter that is now produced bimonthly They hired a consulting group to revamp the Web site. Part of the site enhancement involved integrating it with Emerald Data Solutions’ Board Docs, a software system that enables users to access board meeting agendas, minutes, and associated documents, as well as district policies.
Before BoardDocs, district officials would send packets of relevant documents to board members’ homes prior to board meetings. Through an administrative portal, board members are now able to access these documents through BoardDocs. Parents and other members of the community can access documents through the public portal.
On the administrative end, the district’s use of BoardDocs has been a real time-saver. Mary Ellen McElligott, the superintendent’s administrative assistant, no longer has to print hard copies of documents. She receives most items for inclusion in documents electronically. Those that come in on paper, she scans.
Board meetings are held on Tuesdays, with the documents generally posted on the preceding Friday. “If changes to any documents are made after they have been posted, board members receive an automatic e-mail letting them know,” says McElligott.
Each document is projected from BoardDocs onto a huge screen at board meetings for public viewing, and access to these same documents is also available through BoardDocs on the district’s Web site.
A Good Return on Investment
As a further step in reaching out to the community, the district now tracks its progress with a “scorecard,” also available through BoardDocs on the district’s Web site, which May describes as a “monthly dipstick of key indicators.” These indicators include student achievement, safe and nurturing environment, fiscal health, customer service, and quality personnel.
The district is at the highest of four levels of financial wellness in the state. Moreover, all of its schools have made Adequate Yearly Progress, and math and reading scores have shown strong gains. “We believe taxpayers have received a good return on investment,” May says.
Barreras agrees: “You cannot ask for support from the community without showing some value, some return on investment, and some clear targets and goals. You can invite parents and other community members to take the journey with you, so that everyone can be proud of the district.”
Don Parker-Burgard is copy editor of District Administration.