Members of the Forest Park District 91 Board of Education want students and teachers thrive in a learning environment. Turns out, board members have some learning to do themselves. 

 On Dec. 1, District 91 participated in its first community engagement workshop at its district headquarters, 424 Des Plaines Ave. The board invited the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB) to present an overview of community engagement for school boards. The workshop in three sessions will outline the most effective ways for a school board to understand its role as both a community communicator and leader in public education.

Perry Hill, director with the IASB’s office in Lombard led the evening’s discussion on topics ranging from proper communication, effective governance and discovering new voices in the community. 

The IASB expects school boards across the state to understand the difference between community engagement and public relations, to recognize the key principle effects of community engagement, to understand its overall role in communication and know why effective engagement is essential to public education. 

Hill explained that in order for a school board to become an effective communicator, members must first understand foundational principles.

“A board [must] clarify the district’s purpose, connect with the community, employ a superintendent, delegate authority, monitor performance and take responsibility for itself,” Hill said.

He invited the board to share some examples how they present information to the community and how effectively the board feels they listen to the community. 

Board President Francis Mott noted community participation is usually low to none at open board meetings. However the board takes workings of the district to the public at the yearly state of the district address. 

“We invite the entire community and elected officials,” he said. “We inform the district and the community on how we are doing towards reaching our goals based on our core values.  We [examine] every core value [and] give the community an opportunity to voice their comments.”

Mott provided the example of the recent addition at Betsy Ross and how prior to the construction, the board held a community forum explaining the reasoning behind the construction. 

Vice President Mary Win Connor added that while they want the public to voice their opinions, the public must also understand that even if the board does not put public suggestions into action, it does not mean the board does not care. 

“There was input that we listened to [and] looked into, but it didn’t end up being the way we went,” Connor said. “That doesn’t me we weren’t listening.” 

Other forms of communication the board said they use include feedback from parent groups, the citizen’s advisory council, presence at open houses and community surveys.

“We survey the community every year and we ask their opinion on a variety of issues especially around communication and how they want to be communicated with, about what and how often,” Superintendent Louis Cavallo said. “We get a lot of feedback [and] we actually had a very good return rate the last couple of years with the survey that we extended to the entire community, not just parents.”

Additionally, board member Eric Connor said that the board does pay attention to stories written by the Forest Park Review and comments that follow on the online comments section.

 “They [comments] deteriorate into ad hominem attacks almost inevitably, so we generally don’t get involved in that,” he said. “But, sometimes some information does come back on those so we do pay attention to some of the comments.”

Hill said the board needs to always remember to tell the community that it expects public communication to be candid and understanding just like the public expects the board to be honest with them. 

“This is exactly what the board struggles with,” Cavallo said.

Hill said in order for the board to encourage more honest and frequent communication with the public, they must remember that dialogue, not debate, gives people more chances to participate in open discussions.

 “Many people have pieces to an answer [and] more than one solution may exist,” Hill said.

Hill outlined five key principles for effectively engaging the community, the first being to pursue civic engagement, not public input.

 “Having a microphone isn’t enough,” he said. The public shouldn’t just have a few minutes to state their opinions but rather spend time having a true dialogue with board members during and after board meetings.

 “This is really the crux of what our board is laser focused on,” Cavallo said.

The second key principle Hill discussed was engaging people as citizen-owners.

 “Don’t ask ‘what can we do for you?’ but instead ‘what do we need to do together?’ We own this district together,” Hill said.

The other three principles Hill said were to discover voices, not simply demographics; to seek synergy and not consensus and to educate the public instead of merely informing them.

“Benefits of community engagement [include] understanding community wide concerns and values and practicing proactive leadership versus reactive response,” he said.

The board will attend the second session of the IASB workshop Monday, Jan. 5, 2015 at 6 p.m. The meetings are open to the public.