Navigating Budget Communications for School District Leaders

From California to Massachusetts, school districts across the nation are bracing for steep cuts to education funding. How can school leaders best keep communities informed while navigating this challenging fiscal environment? 

Look and listen 

Too often, leaders hesitate to communicate in the face of uncertainty. But this risky strategy can leave your audiences vulnerable to messages from other sources that may not reflect your district’s reality or priorities. So how do you know when it’s time to communicate? 

First, look inward. If your district’s financial outlook is weighing on your mind and your heart, it might be time to let your community know how you plan to lead them through this challenge.  

Second, listen. Are your employees talking about this? Is your community hearing about this in the news? Are neighboring districts communicating about this? If so, your community deserves to hear what you have to say on the issue.  

What to say and how to say it  

Your audiences don’t expect you to have all the answers, but they do deserve to know the following: 

  • What the district is doing (or has done) to stabilize its financial position, including any cost-cutting measures; 
  • The state of the district’s fiscal reserves; and 
  • The priorities that will guide district decisions, such as preserving jobs, maintaining class sizes, or continuing student programs and services.  

Whether you are gravely concerned, or cautiously optimistic, the tone and tenor of your messages should accurately reflect your assessment of the situation. Review your message and ask yourself: Am I making things sound worse (or better) than they actually are? 

Communicate early and often

As important as it is to break the silence, know that one message may not be enough for an issue of this complexity. 

It’s important to bring your audience along with you as new factors emerge and key decisions are being considered. The school funding picture can change over time, especially as state budgets get developed. Ongoing communications will help ensure that, when tough decisions need to be made, the community is already well aware of the need for action. 

Be transparent

When programs, jobs and even schools are on the line, districts must be prepared to demonstrate a high level of transparency. The higher the stakes, the more important it is for your community to understand the process that led the district’s decision. 

Avoid generalizations such as “We exhausted all options” or “We made the decision we thought was best.” Take responsibility as a leader; don’t tell your community that you “had no choice” or that the district was “forced” to lay off staff or shutter programs. Instead, offer specifics: 

  • Who was involved in the decision-making process? 
  • What priorities guided the district’s decision? 
  • What other options were considered, and why were they rejected? 
  • What constraints impacted the decision (such as contractual obligations)? 
  • Why was this course of action the most responsible decision? 

These details are necessary to build consensus around any decision. 

Meet your audience where they are

Budgets, and the budgeting process, are not always easy for those outside the financial field to understand. Skilled, strategic communication must present these complex issues in a way your audience can understand. Use examples and analogies where appropriate. Explain terms that may be unfamiliar to your audience – not just once, but every time they are used. 

Above all, remember to be human. As a leader, you know that budgets are not just dollars and cents; they are people with beating hearts, students with hopes and dreams, and families who love their local school. Showing emotional vulnerability may be one of the most difficult things to do as a leader, but if your community is grieving, let them know you grieve with them – then reassure them that you are prepared to see them through this challenge. 

The bottom line

Budget woes can present some of the most difficult school communications challenges. To learn more about how Nichols Strategies’ Full-Service Approach can support your district’s financial communications, contact us today