Outside the Walls


Thoughts from Outside the Walls, January-June 2002

Copyright Dick Bernard dick_bernard@msn.com

January 2002
"Success is 5% Inspiration and 95% perspiration*."
Perhaps you have a notion about what might be changed to better relate to those whose daily life is outside your walls.

Granted, any time is a bad time to initiate anything. There are always excellent reasons to avoid even the most positive changes! You're human. You know the routine to block change! So, perhaps this month is the one for the process of change to begin.

The reality is simple: CHANGE is TOUGH and SLOW, and consequently, most often AVOIDED. *FEAR is a factor (as in "cold sweat"*).

Almost always, in change, things seem to - and often do - get worse before they get better. You know why this is, from personal changes you've wished to make in your own life. Indeed, the challenge of change seems parallel to the famous Stages of Grief identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. First, there is DENIAL AND ISOLATION ("we're okay"); then ANGER ("kill the messenger who carries the bad news"); then BARGAINING, DEPRESSION, and finally, ACCEPTANCE.

A reasonable schematic about the dilemma of the process of change is illustrated below. The red line indicates the status quo - the comfort zone for most of us in most of our lives. We stay with the familiar, whether that is good or bad. The green line symbolizes something better if we change; but the inevitable dip, symbolized in yellow, often sabotages our best efforts - and we quit before the good change can kick in.

Assuming you think there might be some things you can do to improve relations with the public outside your public school's walls, the next decision is what to do. There are literally endless possibilities. Here are two: First, quietly identify some potential allies, inside and outside, who might share your vision. Meet with them. They will give you strength, support and ideas. Second, consider beginning to address the question about the direct short and long term value of good public education to the people outside the walls, and how better to articulate this message to the public. Don't assume they should know the answer to this question. This is a very serious question which must be answered if you expect continuing public support "outside the walls." Now...GO FOR IT!

February 2002
Money talks.
Everyone knows they pay money to the schools, but how much?

I thought this would be an easy question to answer, until I endeavored to find out during the 2001-2002 school year.

Every state finances public education in different ways. Here's what I found for my own state:
Starting with the premise that my financial stake in public schools was through local (property), state and federal taxes, I worked to find what our personal number really was. Precision is difficult, due to changing structure of school finance in the last session of the legislature, fiscal year versus calendar year, etc., but the following numbers are fairly close to reality.

We paid several thousands of dollars in taxes specifically to public education. Of this, 80% came from state taxes; of the remainder, the majority was through property taxes. About 40% of the Minnesota state budget goes to public education; slightly more than 1% of the federal budget is to K-12 education.

Though I know school finance, my personal numbers were very surprising to me. Like most taxpayers, I had never taken the time to try to figure this out.

Every taxpayer's number would be different, of course - some more, some less than ours. Regardless, the case can be made, and made very strongly, that every taxpayer, no matter where they live, is an important shareholder in your school district, investing in it every year, even though most of us don't live within your boundaries, or attend your programs, etc.

Each of us who are taxpayers "outside the walls" have a stake in your schools as well, even if we do not live nearby. This is an important fact, not to be forgotten.

March 2002
"...I couldn't believe how I was dropped like a hot potato the minute my kids graduated.
We have to start doing better with the empty nesters."

Keeping the door ajar:
JM, the retired person who wrote the above words to me back in November, 2001, had spent an entire career in public education, and was an award winning leader in her field of school public relations. Still, until I had told her about my new venture "outside the walls," the idea of being abandoned by her own public school district had really not occurred to her - but it had apparently always been there, at least subconsciously.

There are lots of JM's out there, including within your own district. And, as you know, they are not all empty nesters - some are graduates of your schools who do not have kids, etc.

With a new school year about to begin, now is the perfect time to begin thinking about simple, inexpensive and unobtrusive ways to stay connected with next years graduating seniors, and the new crop of parents who will become empty nesters. (In JM's case, the problem would have been simple to remedy: the local districts method of keeping track of parents and kids could be modified so that parents would not be dropped off the computer list simply because their youngest child graduated - their status would simply change.)

It is amazing how easy it is to remain connected in these days of rapid communication. It is even more amazing to note how disconnected we have become, even within our own communities. JM continued to live in the community from which her kids had graduated, but once they were gone, she and her husband were "out of sight, out of mind".

April 2002
On Connecting, An Old Car and Fishing:
In about 1990, my Dad and I visited the Oldsmobile dealer in Grand Forks ND, to "visit" his Dad's 1901 Olds - the 369th ever manufactured. This was the automobile in which Dad had learned to drive while growing up in Grafton ND.

Sadly, we learned that the antique had been sold to some car collector out west, but we couldn't uncover sufficient details, and the matter was dropped.

Some years earlier, in 1981, while researching my family history, I had met a man from San Diego CA who had a similar interest, and was part of my family tree, and grew up in the same area as my Dad. We had met only once, but he had my address, and I, his. And we kept in touch perhaps once a year. He kept in touch with his hometown (which he had left permanently before WWII) by subscribing to the local Grafton newspaper.

In the summer of 1997, an envelope arrived at my home from my San Diego relative, and when I opened it, along with a letter from my relative, there was a newspaper clipping from the Grafton newspaper, showing a photo of my Grandpa's auto, with a story about its recent new owner, an Englishman who also happened to live in the San Diego area, who had taken the car to Grafton, among other reasons, to establish its pedigree and history.

It was a simple matter for me to find the owner, we corresponded, and it was a high point of my Dad's life, one month before he died in 1997, to learn that "his" car was still around. In fact, he and I had a long tape recorded conversation about the car from his hospital bed, less than a month before he passed on.

It was an equally high point for me, in May of 1998, to actually go for a drive in the ancient Olds - for while I had seen the car in town parades when I was young, we were never allowed to so much as sit in it.

I am not suggesting that such keeping in touch with your graduates and their parents, even once a year, will have such dramatic results.

At the same time, there exists a possibility that there will be such a result, or many such results, or at the very least, a general feeling of connectedness with your schools that will serve you very well long term...if you keep in touch.

In many ways, trying to keep in touch is a lot like fishing: a fisherman will cast, sometimes for years, in the hope of ultimately landing the big one...and usually does. One thing is certain in fishing: if you don't cast, you'll not catch a fish, period. You'll never know, until you try, what keeping in touch will mean.

Perhaps in considering budget for the coming, difficult, fiscal year ahead, figure out some way to move a few dollars into a new category for keeping in touch. It will pay big dividends long-term.
Dick Bernard 'at the lever' of the 1901 Oldsmobile, May 1998.

May 2002
"...I'll always remember that box lunch."

Sometime back in the 1980s, I received the gift of a single share of stock in Minnesota Power and Light (MP&L) in Duluth. So far as the company was concerned, I had become an investor, albeit the tiniest of the tiny ones in that very large corporation. By virtue of that stock, I was on the mailing list for the annual reports, and invited to the Annual Meeting, always in mid-May.

I never went to these annual meetings until one day about the early 1990s. I remember that this was the year that the MP&L paper plant in west end Duluth opened, and there was a tour of that facility.

But more than anything else that day, I remember that the company had set up exhibits for the stockholders, and every stockholder in attendance got a box lunch - nothing fancy, but still a memorable gift to a very small fish in a mighty big pond.

Small time? Insignificant?

Yes, but very much No. Among the many sayings within the public relations community is the mantra of the Three F's: "Fun, Food and Family". If you can provide some fun, some food and something for the whole family, you're well on the way to capturing the heart of your customer - the person who you expect to support your public schools. Give it some thought.

And lest you feel this is a bit simplistic, here is what a retired official of Minnesota Power - now Allete - said in a letter to me: "those attending the annual meeting represent only a tiny fraction, perhaps 1 per cent of the shareholders! Nonetheless, the meeting is a "special" event for local/area investors that has paid large dividends for the company's reputation. It makes sense for [schools] to consider a similar event to bolster community relations...."

June 2002
Alumni Relations...should there be a department in public schools? A project, some time back, was to find the name and e-mail address of the magazine editors for 31 college and university alumni associations around the United States. The institutions were large and tiny, public and private, throughout the Midwest and West.

Like anyone who has ever been to college, I am on more than one alumni mailing list.

But not until I started inquiring did I fully comprehend how important Alumni Affairs departments and allied departments (like planned giving) are at every University and College across the country. It became a major task to find the "right" person within this major department of university administration. I succeeded in all cases, but it was much more effort than I thought it would be.

Alumni are big, big business for colleges. For multiple good reasons, among which are future financial endowments, providing pools of student talent, etc., etc., etc., institutions don't want them to get away. Since many alumni have attended, and received degrees from, more than one institution, there is competition for the allegiance of alumni. Universities don't wish to lose the big - or even the non - contributors. Even a non-contributor can, after all, become a big one somewhere down the road.

Which leads back to your venue: the public school.

Public Schools? It seems to be the very unusual exception to find a public school taking the "alumni" aspect of its mission very seriously, if at all. Events like reunions still seem to rely on ad hoc committees of volunteers who spring up independent of the school.

For the most part, unfortunately, when the last child graduates, the relationship between the school, the parent and even the student basically ends.

It's a point of change to consider.