Outside the Walls


A Letter from the President

By Dick Bernard
May 2003

A number of years ago I was listening to a talk by one of the premier super-salesmen in the U.S.

He was describing a happening early in his career when he had had a long day selling pots and pans somewhere in this country of ours. It was late, and he stopped at a motel to get a room. "We're full up", the clerk said. Hardly missing a beat, our salesman said "If the President of the United States were to come by tonight, would you have a room?" Of course they would. "Well, it's likely he won't be by tonight, so I'll take it." He had a good night's sleep.

I thought of this vignette while in the process of attempting to gather data, as an ordinary citizen, from offices of school districts in my own state, and nationwide.

I wasn't the President, not even a parent of a student any more, just a lowly taxpayer, a retiree asking a question.

More on that in a moment.

A self-assessment: when you came to work this day, which requests did you attend to first? Which phone calls, e-mails, etc., were first to be answered? To which outside requests did you respond?

Which messages were tossed, deleted, or put off to the side for future action - as in "low priority"? Which were not answered at all: "none of his/her business?"

The salesman's story came to mind as I was doing a very simple survey of 100 superintendents, two per state, across the United States. I had a single and very simple curriculum question one of their staff could very easily answer without doing any research. The question was one in which I had both an interest and expertise. The answer could be open-ended. I clearly identified myself.

In total, over six weeks, I received responses from nine districts in nine states - less than 10% response rate. All of the responses were very polite and answered the question I had asked.

Only you can answer the questions posed in the self-assessment. Odds are, however, that if the letter or e-mail came from some VIP (your choice) and competed with a similar message from one of your local taxpayers who you'd never heard of, or, worse, was one you knew and didn't like, the message from the VIP would be attended to first...even if he/she doesn't live/vote or otherwise directly impact on your district...and the taxpayer does.

Granted, regardless of your position within the public schools, you are very busy. And you may not feel that constituent communications is even a part of your job. Keep in mind, however, that the constituent may have only that single question, and you control that single opportunity to make or break a relationship with him or her or them. You may not have a second chance. That constituent not only can vote, but can influence the votes of others as well.

There is, I have come to believe, a clear and distinct (and risky) pecking order in constituent communications. In this pecking order, the ordinary citizen who in the end analysis pays most of the bills and who elects all of the representatives who make the critical decisions about public education, is generally way down the priority list for communications. It is a problem, begging attention, ignored at the school system's peril.

I did another survey this year: an elderly friend, a retired English judge, had in 1927 debated at 31 well-known American colleges and universities. Last fall, I wrote the presidents of these colleges and universities, asking if they could provide archival information about each debate for presentation to the Judge at his 98th birthday.

Even though the debater was an Englishman, 75 years removed from a one day appearance at each college, 24 of the 31 institutions replied, enclosing sometimes hard to access archival information. Most included a personal letter for the Judge from the President or Chancellor of the University. The Judge was absolutely delighted and overwhelmed at the information, given to him on his birthday.

If the Judge had not been a man of prominence, how much attention would the request have been given?

There is nothing more important than effective constituent communication, especially for a public entity like a public school. It must be part of every staff member's everyday job description.