Inside Your Town

Quakertown Community School Board takes first step toward building more public trust

QUAKERTOWN, Pa. - In a public meeting room where three-quarters of the seats were empty, the school board voted to get the community back into Quakertown Community School District.

On Thursday night, the board agreed to hire K-12 Insight to do at least 14 surveys in the coming school year, at a cost of $40,000.

The intent is that doing a series of online surveys tailored for Quakertown will help improve communication and gradually build more trust with the district's many constituents: employees, students, parents, alumni, local businesses and others.

A K-12 spokesman told the board by doing the surveys they will be telling the community: "We are custodians of the public's trust.  This is your district, not ours. And in this community, you never have to shout to be heard."

A key component is that results of all surveys taken will be made public 10 to 14 days after they are taken. Increasing public education about the district is another underlying reason for doing them.

The vote to hire K-12 was unanimous by the eight board members at the meeting, although board president Robert Smith expressed skepticism about spending so much money that could be used for textbooks or other equipment needed for students in the district.

"I thought we should have been smart enough to be able to do it in-house," said Smith.

The hiring won't be final until all board members and the district's solicitor review the contract with K-12 and that contract is signed.

The board agreed to that stipulation after Smith was advised the district can't get out of that contract once it is signed.

The board voted to hire K-12 after Jesse Leib, a consultant for the company, made a presentation via telephone and answered questions.

K-12's goal is to protect school districts from a "trust deficit" with their communities.

Leib said there has been "a very significant erosion of public trust and confidence about what goes on in public schools." His company's goal is to "nurture public trust."

Leib told the board resources are going away, trust is going down, but "our community's expectations are going through the roof."

He said district officials have to spend too much time fighting "peripheral fires" set by entrenched people on the fringes. "They tend to be all you ever hear from."

He added most of the community is disengaged: "They don't know board members from cabinet members." He told the board K-12 will help Quakertown start building relationships with the public by creating an on-going dialogue on critical issues facing the district.

The surveys are a process, not a product, said Leib, a way for the district to "start having a conversation with the community. We have to get our community talking back to us. Make sure more and more people tune in and pay attention every time you do it. You create an organization that listens."

Noting it is a gradual and systematic process, he told the board: "You're not going to do one of these things and immediately tap into the entire community and all of a sudden we have trust."

But he stressed: "Each activity you do starts to build new relationships with people you never heard from before."

Last December, the board voted to start taking surveys, beginning with one of district teachers. But that survey was not done.

Teachers were "nervous" about it, said board member Anna Cattie. She said that will be the first survey done by K-12. Board members hope having an outside firm do that survey will assure teachers it will be objective and their answers will be anonymous.

"I'm a little discouraged that we couldn't come together without spending $40,000 to put together a survey," said Smith during the meeting. "What seems to be one of the driving issues is distrust on both sides on how this is going to be done."

Cattie, who chairs the board's education committee that has been working on the survey issue, said for teachers to feel comfortable that they will be heard and respected, her committee agreed "we needed to use a third party."

She said it would have cost $15,000 for K-12 Insight to do just a teacher survey. She added another company's estimate was $28,000.

After the teacher survey is completed, the district will begin doing more.

Leib said the district will create a public calendar so people will know about surveys before they are done. He said residents should be advised that "throughout the year, we need to reach out to a variety of you about critical issues affecting the district."

Some survey results will be used to help the district develop a new comprehensive plan. While results will help guide the district, Leib said they are not referendums.

Cattie said one survey will ask if people feel surveys are valuable enough that they should be done the following school year.

Leib assured board members the district will be involved in creating the surveys "every step of the way" and that they will be a school district product.

He told the board K-12 Insight has worked with 300 school districts since 2004.

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