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Weigh In: How Do You Manage the Line Between Education and Politics?

Six experts give advice on how to carefully balance this perennial dilemma.

Press Check
"I have to make sure that I'm informed of all the issues that pertain to our town," says Mike Perry, superintendent of Washington's Harrington School District. "Our setting is a lot different than in a large city. We're really tied to agriculture. So if agriculture has a good year, then people are more willing to talk about providing funds for the school district.

"I also have to make sure our employees are advocates for the district and speak about the good things we're doing, and I also encourage board members. When they go out and speak about the importance of what's going on in the school as they're talking to their colleagues, it makes a big difference as to what we're able to accomplish here.

"As soon as we complete a board meeting, my first call is usually to the local press to tell the reporter what happened so there aren't any questions or concerns. Then I make sure I'm available for anyone who wants to come in and talk about what's going on. The smallness of our area allows me to communicate with a larger percentage of our base of voters. I can go to a local sporting event and probably talk to about 50 percent of our constituents."

Open Lines
"We have partnerships for trying to further develop the local areas," says Cheryl Griffith, superintendent at Allegheny Valley School District in Cheswick, Pennsylvania. "Allegheny Valley is comprised of four municipalities. We have representatives who work cooperatively with the local areas to try to help them with their initiatives, because they, in turn, support what we do.

"It's not really a juggling act. We have a PR director. She's at the forefront to help us be aware of information that may not always come through e-mail or on days when we're just too busy to be on top of everything.

"We have a local unit, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which is absolutely  fabulous in helping to educate us on current topics that come from the Department of Education as well as from the legislature. It's just for our region, the Pittsburgh area, which includes 42 school districts.

"The key is to be very open as far as listening carefully, reading things quickly, and being able to identify, as an administrator, the best ways to get information to our stakeholders. If they're well informed and focus clearly on what our goals are for our system, then keeping the lines of communication open with politicians is wise and can be beneficial as well."

Local Authority
"In Minnesota, we're called ‘independent school districts,' so we stand alone from county government or city government," says Dennis Peterson, Minnetonka Public Schools superintendent. "But we are governed ultimately by the state legislature so we have a need to work closely with state legislators, and the governor in particular. We have nine legislators who represent the voters in our district.

"They certainly have laws relative to curriculum standards that we have to comply with. But they don't get involved at all in the day-to-day operations or our budget. We inform them of issues that are of concern to us, the need for financial support from the state, and respond to legislative proposals or bills that are out there. They seek our input on most things that affect us.

"We don't have a hired legislative liaison. I'm pretty much it. We do have a parent advocacy group that works closely with them and us. We work both parties-Democrats and Republicans-who represent us and try to be careful not to [support] one party over another.

"We often think we don't have much local control in Minnesota, but when we look at what some other states require for working through their city or county, we realize we have quite a bit of local authority."

Information Exchange
"There's a very fine line between politics and education," says Phinnize J. Fisher, superintendent at Greenville County Schools in Greenville, South Carolina. "We're physically independent. I work with about half a dozen different municipalities. But they're not directly responsible for our fiscal management or how we do our day-to-day business. I do have a 12-member board of trustees. They set the policies and governance for the school district.

"I make sure that our 18 state legislators are very clear and base their information on factual information. We cover over 800 square miles, so we're very large. Because of our size, it's easy for misinformation to get out or a rumor to get started. So we actually have on our staff a legislative liaison who talks with each of [the legislators] individually so that they're very clear, understand our position or understand the truth of the matter. I make sure she's equipped with the facts, all the information.

"Mayors may come in and say that they want to meet with me about an issue facing them and us and how we could potentially help if it doesn't violate any of our beliefs related to children and the education of children. We've been able to invite each other in."

Across the Nation: More Voices on the Politics of Schools
"I try to stay within the purview of my responsibilities, prioritize my school, and focus on doing all that I can for students and teachers with the resources I have," says Paul Goricki, principal at Hickory Creek Elementary School in St. Johns County, Florida. "I leave the superintendent to do battle with the legislators and politicos."

"It's a two-way street," says Myong Leigh, superintendent of policy and planning at San Francisco USD. "It's not just responding to issues that come up on city officials' side. We also try to educate them, to come up with a list of things the city can do to support our schools. It's had a tremendous outcome."

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