Face it, as a transportation manager, some things are just out of your hands. Budgets, school bus procurement, community concerns, school boundaries, major discipline issues, grants, audits and major policy decisions are among the many issues that require the attention of school district administration, or in some cases, the school board. Though the prospect may seem intimidating, making a presentation before a school board can play a vital part in the successful operation of a transportation department.
School board members are elected to represent their constituents in matters affecting the running of a school district. They are sensitive to safety, financial issues and public opinion, and they appreciate hearing from important district departments, including transportation. More importantly, they are human beings, and they want to see the best for students.
A school board presentation usually occurs for one of two reasons. You can be summoned to make a presentation if the board takes an interest in a particular issue. Or, you can voluntarily schedule a meeting to help gain support for something of your choice. In either case, it’s important to be informative, honest and relaxed. The following six steps, with input from several industry professionals, will help you prepare for and then deliver a successful school board presentation.
1. Scout the terrain
The first step to a successful presentation is to learn as much as possible about the people on the board, dynamics of board meetings, related protocols of board business and a general layout of how the system works. A simple but wholly critical action, for example, is to find out where and when meetings are held and how they are scheduled. David Pace, director of transportation services for Virginia Beach (Va.) City Public Schools, says that the chairman of the school board and the district superintendent might meet the first or third Tuesday of every month to decide the agenda for school board meetings. Finding out exactly when, he says, is critical when trying to schedule a presentation or have the board agree to give you time.
Another simple, but highly recommended action is to attend a school board meeting or two in advance of your presentation. Observe the format by which issues are addressed and take notes of how board members react to specific topics. Pay attention to the length of the meeting and the time allotted for each subject discussed. Also scout out the way the boardroom is set up and what resources are available to aid in a presentation. Later, when you rehearse your presentation, you will be able to visualize the physical setup of the meeting.
If at all possible, learn the school board’s key goals, objectives or even its mission statement. To give yourself the best chance of impressing a school board, says Claudia Sherrill, director of transportation for Elk Grove (Calif.) Unified School District, you’ll want to adapt your own project goals to meet those of the school board’s mission statement. “A key to a successful presentation is having sensitivity to the larger picture of the board’s goals and means, and making sure that you are in line with both,’ she adds.
2. Introduce and acquaint
Once you have researched who and what you are dealing with, the next move is to introduce yourself to each member of the board and any other important people involved in the process. Building a solid rapport with school board members may not pay immediate dividends, but as your relationship with them grows, so do your chances of having issues important to you heard and addressed. Additionally, as you get to know board members, your ability to cater to their personalities only improves. “Know the personality of the board and the tone of the subject and play to that,” says Fred Murphy, assistant superintendent for Polk County Public Schools in Bartow, Fla. “If they are not light-hearted, then donÕt attempt humor.”
There may be other people who are important to meet and work with. For example, if you are making a presentation on the seat belt issue, which is a hot topic with parents, you would want to work with the PTA, says Lenny Bernstein, director of transportation for North Rockland Central Schools in Garnersville, N.Y. Other people with expertise from which you could possibly benefit include vendors, special-needs educators, politicians, industry associations and school administrators. Even a board secretary can help immensely by telling you what equipment is available and how to use it. Knowing the right people will help you become acquainted with the school board presentation process and make you look better in the eyes of the board itself.
3. Build momentum
After you have acclimated yourself to the system and started a working relationship with the important players, you should attempt to inform the board of what you plan to discuss and bring positive attention to the issue. School boards are usually under a lot of pressure from the public, the media, district administration and area politicians. They may be wary of your position and will welcome brochures, flyers or write-ups to prime them for your presentation. According to Michael Dallessandro, transportation supervisor for Lake Shore (N.Y.) Central School District, school boards prefer not to be “blindsided” by touchy public interest and student safety issues. “They need a topic title and rough idea on the purpose of the presentation,” he says.
However, if your presentation is a topic of public concern, you might want it to be covered by the media. If your district has a public relations department, send them information to be distributed through the proper channels. Another option is to create your own press release and send it to local news stations, newspapers, reporters and other media outlets.
Also make sure to tell supporters of your cause the date and time of your presentation, since board meetings are open to the public. If your presentation asks the board to reward the accomplishments of your driver staff, for instance, make sure you ask drivers to attend the meeting. Their presence will provide moral support for you and evidence to the board that someone is behind your idea. Inviting staff members has an added benefit as well, says Sherrill. “If questions are asked and I can’t answer them, I can call on a staff person to assist,” she says.
4. Prepare, prepare, prepare
As is true with just about anything you do in life, preparation will make a huge difference in the ultimate success of your presentation. School boards want to hear thorough, professional points of view, without inaccuracies, sloppy mistakes and gaps in logic. The following suggestions, offered by transportation managers with experience in making school board presentations, serve as tips to preparing for a school board meeting:
Research the topic exhaustively through reference materials, district records, statistics, periodicals, etc.
Decide on the equipment and visual aids you want to use and prepare them ahead of time.
Choose a time limit and practice sticking to it.
Cover universally important concerns in your presentation — budget, safety, community, logistics, etc. — as well as buzz topics.
Brainstorm ideas with staff and have them think of or anticipate possible questions that the board might ask.
Double-check your facts and figures.
Have your superior review, comment on and approve of your presentation.
Rehearse the entire presentation in front of an audience of staff or peers.
5. Make it happen
When the time comes to present, don’t get too excited. Keep in mind that the school board members have a lot in common with you. After all, they, too, are interested in the safest possible transportation of students between home and school. It may also give you comfort to recognize that you are the expert on your given topic. If they were as well-versed in transportation issues as you are, then they probably wouldn’t be hearing from you. “Board members are many times members of the community who do not have your level of expertise,” says Jim Minihan, supervisor of transportation for Lakeland Central School District in Mohegan Lake, N.Y. “It is important to speak clearly and in layman’s terms. The board relies on your information to make informed decisions for the district.”
When making your presentation, choose the format that will best allow you to get your point across and utilize all statistics and visual aids. “Microsoft PowerPoint is the only way today,” says Dallessandro. “PowerPoint provides the ability to produce high quality presentations with imported pictures, charts, graphs and streaming video. It keeps people’s attention longer than changing overhead transparencies or reading from dry erase boards or flip charts.” Make sure that the meeting room will be able to accommodate whatever resources or equipment you settle on.
Remember to smile and be pleasant. Always tell the truth and not what you think the board wants to hear. If you don’t have the answer to one of their questions, do not try to bluff your way through. Instead, if you are unsure of anything, let them know that you will need to check and then get back to them. Bernstein offers another tidbit of advice, “Never argue.” You are there to persuade, not to antagonize.
6. Follow up
When the presentation is complete, your work is not finished. First and foremost, plan to stay at the meeting until it’s over, even if there are presenters after you. It’s important that you make yourself available to answer the questions of school board members. It might be prudent to send some type of memo to board members a few days later, too. “Many times school boards suffer from overload after a late meeting, and your presentation could be forgotten,” says Bernstein. “A follow up is always good.”
Sherrill recommends another very thorough method of following up a presentation. “I take notes from the questions and comments of the board members,” she says. “I respond to their questions within 24 to 48 hours after the presentation.” Sherrill says that she also occasionally singles out board members who were exceptionally supportive and sends them follow-up e-mails or letters discussing specific points.
Finally, it’s never inappropriate to show your gratitude by writing thank-you notes to the members of a school board. After all, your presentation takes valuable time out of their lives, too.