When public trust in school boards is challenged, technology can help

Jennifer Rose Hale

In a role legally defined as a “trustee,” public school board members understand the importance of building trust within their communities. Today, however, these board members find themselves up against serious obstacles in that pursuit, as voters indicate growing distrust for the government representatives who run their neighborhood schools.

The numbers are concerning: according to a State Policy Network survey, just 24 percent of voters across the country have a “significant level” of trust for their local school board.

The good news is this challenge is not insurmountable. Board members can improve their relationships and rebuild trust with thoughtful, active strategies, and by implementing technology solutions that support these efforts.  

How the current climate impacts community trust

In many communities, school board meetings have become the front lines for political and cultural conflicts that have spilled into public schools. Disagreements over mask mandates from early pandemic days have transitioned into conflicts over library books, curricula, gender policies and more.  

Other issues are more localized, but no less contentious. In Detroit, a decision to remove middle school-level honors math classes prompted talks of a board recall. In Oregon, outgoing board chair Dave Brown, replaced by several other members in a single election, called it a “complicated” time to be a school board member after two years of controversies over political flag bans and a superintendent hire. 

Some school boards have even taken to limiting public comments at meetings, as explored in a recent EdWeek piece. Such actions make it even harder to establish public trust.

The State Policy Network survey shows that trust is low across the spectrum; in California, 30 percent of respondents indicate they trust their local school boards, while in Virginia, the number dwindles to 14 percent.

Parents want to have faith in their local public school boards; they want to see their concerns reflected in thoughtful responses and actions by their elected representatives. And board members, who are elected to represent the interests of their stakeholders (parents, but also teachers, students and business leaders), need to work to build trust, engage with the community and promote positive participation.     

How technology can help school boards build trust

Solutions are available to boards facing community trust issues.

Reduce the signal-to-noise ratio

Ensure clear, consistent and effective communication, with your community. With competing streams of information, particularly information being shared on social media, community members are not necessarily seeing the facts coming officially from your school district. Maintaining straightforward and consistent messaging around all aspects of board action and district news is critical.      

With automated notifications about upcoming meetings, agendas, etc., your board admin can manage communications to their community. Parents and other stakeholders can subscribe to receive notifications. When technology is used to automate those email notifications, the messages are more consistent and uniform (and therefore appear more trustworthy) compared to when they are manually created and sent.     

Increase transparency

While streamlining your communications with stakeholders is necessary in this era of information overload, you must balance meaningful messages with high levels of transparency and candor. In a vacuum, parents and community members become susceptible to alternate narratives or simply grow frustrated, which can cause their support for the board to fade quickly.   

Dedicate a section of your public website to the School Board where meeting minutes can be shared, with the ability to easily navigate, search and subscribe for updates on posted meeting agendas and minutes. Livestream or record meetings so interested parties can understand the conversations around board decision-making.      

Increase participation and access

Make it easy for parents to interact with boards. A follow-up to the earlier EdWeek piece about limiting public comments presented Jonathan Collins’ research, which shows that “people who viewed discussions that included both public participation and responses from board members were more likely to show ‘increased trust in local officials and a stronger willingness to attend school board meetings in the future’ than participants who viewed videos of meetings with no public participation, or with public participation that did not get a response from the board.”

Using automation to announce meetings and streaming services to broadcast them offers parents an easy “in” to meeting participation, at whatever level they need. Additionally, the public can submit a request to speak, giving the community the opportunity to raise key concerns during their allotted time at the next meeting.    

Other include higher student achievement and stronger school performance and reputation.

Increase board confidence

Trustees come from all different backgrounds. For many, the learning curve for board service can be steep; administrators and experienced board members should look for ways to build the knowledge base of each member.   

By offering a central repository with powerful search capabilities through your board management software, you can help all trustees easily find relevant materials and even study the history around current board issues.  

Board software can act as a single source of truth that all board members can use to be on the same page. They are then better informed with the right information, which means more effective decision-making and consistency when communicating with their constituents.  

Next steps to increasing public trust

It is a challenging time for public school board members looking to build trust among their community, as the public’s dwindling faith in government affects representatives at even the local level.    

There are proactive steps boards can take to restore and maintain that trust. It starts with investing in the right technology.   

Curious to learn more? Explore our buyer’s guide to choosing the right digital solution that helps you build trust with your school community.