North Mason School District holds public forum to learn how to engage the public
By Mary Swoboda
Posted 6/17/02
The North Mason School District (NMSD) held a public forum at the Fire Station on Old Belfair Hwy the evening of June 11, the stated purpose of which was to find out what the public considers to be the most important characteristics of a successful school.
Unfortunately, over 75% of the participants were affiliated with the district, either as staff, board members or boosters. They were disappointed with such a dismal turnout of the general public.
“There’s not many people here; more than half are from the school,” a district staffer remarked.
Drawing on a parallel between Fire District 2 and the school district, Chief Mike Greene asked, “How do we connect with people who vote? Apathy is our biggest enemy.”
District booster, Butch Boad was not satisfied calling the voting public apathetic. “I’ve seen a lot of M&O levies pass and a lot fail. The failure is usually a result of external things beyond the school district to control. For example, 9/11 had a great deal of influence with voters.”
“When voters are dissatisfied, attendance at meetings like this one and the monthly board meetings increase,” Mr. Boad observed. “Most voters must be satisfied because, if you’re satisfied with something, why go to meetings? Election results ultimately determine if you did the right thing or not,” he continued.
Chief Mike Greene disagreed. “We learned a lot of things about ourselves after FD2’s failed election and it taught us a lot about our community. Community members need to feel something is relevant to them and their voice is being heard.”
District booster, Pam Merrill added, “People don’t always see what’s in it for them, and they are busy. Some people vote no because they’re too busy to find out why they should vote yes.”
School Board member Steve Rose thought maybe the school district needs to advertise more. “Perhaps we need a professional PR guy.”
Mr. Boad acknowledged that the Belfair Herald prints a lot of information about what’s going on in the school district, and the district itself sends out information.
“Maybe we’ve gotten complacent because the school district has been successful for a long time,” he said.
A district staffer observed that even when the school district contacted the randomly selected 20-person focus group members three times (twice by mail and once by phone call); the most who showed up at a meeting was five. “One focus group only had ONE person,” she said.
Ms. Merrill suggested the school district set up a contact list via e-mail. “That might help to let people know.”
“Not one form of communication is going to do it for everyone,” Ray Lucas (principal of Sand Hill Elementary) said, but liked Ms. Merrill’s idea to have an e-mail contact list.
“We shouldn’t assume all parents have e-mail,” Mr. Boad cautioned.
“Most parents do,” Mr. Lucas responded, much to Mr. Boad’s disbelief.
The secondary facilitator, Martha Wightman said, “Maybe the perception is people can’t distinguish between a bond and an M&O levy.”
“I must admit I’m one of the “no” voters,” a community member admitted. “I don’t have a feel for why the money is needed. I’m on the periphery.” She wondered what happens to the kids after they graduate. “The only barometer most of us citizens have are the scores on WASL tests.” She would like to see ever-increasing scores.
“We spend a lot of time focusing on real successful kids as well as the troublemakers” while the kids in the middle kind of drift along,” Ms. Merrill said. “Some parents seem to have the attitude that schools did them wrong and they pass this attitude on to their kids,” she continued.
Superintendent Debbie Wing informed the attendees that 70% of the voters and taxpayers have no kids in the school district.
Mr. Lucas asked, “How do we make it relevant or understandable to folks with no kids in school?”
Ms. Wightman suggested that the school district think about “who we’re marketing to.” For example, budget information needs to be in plain English for the general public.
Mr. Boad added, “People feel stupid and intimidated. It would be good if this information was deciphered.”
“[NMSD’s] music program is phenomenal,” a district staffer said, “but people don’t know how much instruments cost; the costs are incredible.”
“Most people think parents buy the instruments,” Ms. Merrill added.
“It takes $300 to outfit one kid for football and $100 to certify a football helmet,” someone else said.
“This seems extravagant in a day when every penny counts,” the community member said. “I don’t think people need to know how much this costs.”
The primary facilitator, Norm (last name unknown) clarified that a lot of the money for equipment and uniforms comes out of the ASB (Associated Student Body) fund through fund-raisers, cookie sales and the sale of ASB cards.
“Levy money pays for things the state doesn’t pay for,” Chief Greene said. “The simpler you make it, the better the public can understand it.”
Ms. Merrill asked about impact fees. “Isn’t that another source of revenue for the district?”
Supt. Wing replied that the County Commissioners are unwilling to have impact fees assessed. “Impact fees affect developers only, not individual home owners, she said, “and [the school district] has to negotiate with each developer.”
“How do you determine a fair price?” Ms. Merrill asked.
Supt. Wing replied that the amount has been from practically nothing to as high as $11,000. “In places where there are impact fees, it’s around $1,200 per home.”
“Impact fees are like free money we’re not taking advantage of,” Ms. Merrill said.
Moving on, Supt. Wing wondered if it would be a mistake to tell voters what they won’t get if the levy doesn’t pass. “[In other districts when this happened,] people then voted no because they didn’t like to be threatened.”
“Tell people what their tax dollars are being used for and give them the pros and cons,” Chief Greene responded. “When [FD2] ran its benefit assessment charge, we told voters there would be cuts if the levy didn’t pass. It didn’t pass and we cut.”
“It’s important to give folks more information, but it’s possible to give too much information,” a district staffer said. “We need to educate the public on what the levy pays for, but we need to be very careful about crossing the line.”
“The public needs to know what their money is paying for and what will not be funded if the levy fails,” Ms. Merrill added.
“I think this community will support a levy, I really do,” Ms. Merrill concluded.
© 2002 Mary Swoboda. Publication or redistribution is permitted without prior notification provided it is published in its entirety with no modifications.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
       A     B C
    O |           |
    N |           | D
    M |           |
      |           | E
      |           | F
    L |___________|
      K J  I H  G
A = Norm (last name unknown), primary facilitator
B = Joan Albers (NMSD staff)
C = Donna Ford (NMSD staff)
D = Butch Boad (NMSD booster)
E = Paula (either NMSD staff or booster)
F = Martha Wightman, secondary facilitator
G = Pam Merrill (NMSD booster)
H = Mike Greene (community member)
I = Unknown woman (NMSD staff)
J = Mary Swoboda (community member)
K = Debbie Wing (NMSD superintendent—came in about 45 minutes after meeting started)
L = Unknown woman (community member)
M = Ray Lucas (principal, Sand Hill Elementary)
N = Jeff Allen (school board)
O = Steve Rose (school board)
P = Unknown woman (sat behind and to my right near the end of the meeting—I had not seen her earlier)

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