RSF School District hopes to improve communications

RSF School
The RSF School District board considered bringing on consultants to help with a strategic communications plan.
(Karen Billing)

The Rancho Santa Fe School District is working toward crafting a strategic communications plan, to better inform and engage with the parent population as well as deepen understanding of the district in a community where some two-thirds of the constituents do not have kids in the school.

In March, the district sent out requests for proposals for independent consultants to help build the plan and heard presentations from two firms at an April 23 special meeting. The board did not make a decision to move forward with either firm but the consultants will be kept in mind as part of ongoing budget discussions for this year and next year.

The two firms, Dovetail Partners and Clifford Moss, pitched ideas such as focus groups, polling, questionnaires, research and board workshops to build a plan that addresses communication gaps and opportunities.

Board member Annette Ross said she was excited about the “forward-thinking” approaches presented. She said a strategic communication plan could better inform the public about board priorities as well as address real issues that she has seen come up over and over again.

“I think we need to have a better flow and communicate with teachers a lot better than we’re doing so that we don’t have a morale issue. So many issues I have seen could come back to being helped by a really well-integrated communications plan,” Ross said. “I can’t see how it wouldn’t help us greatly.”

Recently the district conducted a survey asking parents to weigh in on a variety of topics, including their current communication strategies. According to the results, 93% credited the weekly school e-newsletter as being very helpful or helpful in keeping them informed. In the reviews of the school website, 69% said it is helpful, 25% said it was fairly helpful and 5.9% reported it not being helpful at all.

The majority of respondents said email is their preferred method of communication and 73% said superintendent chats and principal’s coffees are helpful in keeping them informed. Sixty-three percent said board member chats are helpful. In the written survey comments, one parent said they are “not sure to what extent the board takes parent feedback into account.”

While they were supportive about the idea of an improved communications plan, RSF School Board Vice President Jee Manghani and board members John Tree and Rose Rohatgi had concerns about the cost of the consultants.

While the district is projecting to have a budget surplus for this year and 2021-22, Manghani is concerned about budgetary pressures and said he did not know if he could justify the spending at this time. Dovetail Partners gave an estimate of about $50,000 and Clifford Moss about $43,000.

“The cost to me is just too much to swallow,” Manghani said.

Manghani said collectively the board could work with the superintendent to implement some strategies and craft a plan without the expenditure of an outside consultant. He pitched ideas that the district could try such as better staff engagement, one press release a month, a superintendent video and a website redesign.

As they develop a communications plan, RSF School Board President Kali Kim said she is seeking a more professional approach. Kim said past parent surveys haven’t had actionable items and they haven’t come up with an avenue for impactful feedback or a way to measure how they will address issues such as a disconnect between the parent and teacher communities and reasons why the district is losing students to private schools.

“I think investing in this is worth every penny if we’re looking at a long-term approach,” Kim said.

At the special meeting the board settled on including the potential expenditure in coming budget discussions and seeking more information, such as a scaled-back plan from the firms that just includes the professional research component.

In his comments, Tree said he didn’t want his concerns about the cost to minimize the importance of communications. He agreed it is a very important topic and one that needs more deliberation as they look to set a strategic vision.

“By far the bulk of the community is uninformed and unengaged,” Tree said, noting that there is an active group of “overachievers” that call into every meeting, do all the Foundation work and volunteer but beyond that there is a significant drop-off. “We need to reach those other audiences and we need to engage our community a lot more than just the faithful diehards.”