Audit reveals perceptions, solutions

The tarnished image of the Steamboat Springs School Board and administrative team is the result of a rocky relationship between a former superintendent and a principal and the manner in which policy governance is practiced in the district, according to a report from the National Schools Public Relations Association.

The School Board hired NSPRA earlier this year to perform a communication audit to determine the effectiveness of the district's communication efforts and to provide recommendations to improve those efforts.

The 60-page final report, which was sent to the district last month, reveals many of the ill feelings people in the community hold for the district and numerous positives.

For one, the district is perceived throughout the community as an excellent school system with a strong administrative team and dedicated staff of teachers and support staff, according to the report.

"It was obvious to the auditor that the community takes great pride in having a progressive school system and that education is truly valued in Steamboat Springs," the report states.

But while most of the community believes the district does an excellent job educating its students, a feud between former Superintendent Cyndy Simms and Strawberry Park Elementary School Principal John DeVincentis and the way policy governance is practiced in the district have diminished the trust and credibility of the school system's leadership, the report stated.

However, the report states the community is ready and willing to move on from the Simms-DeVincentis feud, particularly under the leadership of the new superintendent, Donna Howell. The report also emphasizes the need to shift the focus from past issues to present and future ones, such as rebuilding trust, funding education and dealing with changing demographics and the socioeconomic factors of retaining quality employees.

Most of the findings and recommendations in the report are based on information collected during a series of focus groups conducted in Steamboat by NSPRA Associate Director Karen Kleinz. Kleinz met with 16 groups in late April and early May; the groups represented an array of district stakeholders, including teachers, support staff, parents, non-parent taxpayers and community leaders.

All 16 focus groups identified the district's consensus-based collaborative decision-making process as the area most in need of improvement. The process, which staff and community said is valued for its encouragement of participation, leaves many with the perception that nothing ever moves forward.

Internal and external communication also need improvement, focus group participants said. Employees feel as if they are left out of the communication loop, and community members and parents want to receive more facts about school issues.

The NSPRA report identifies 18 recommendations to improve communication and dozens of possible ways to implement those recommendations.

"Improving the image, reputation and effectiveness of district communication will take commitment, resources, planning and time," the report reads. "Improving and strengthening the district's image will require ongoing dialogue and investment in building relationships with many of the individuals and groups we interviewed in the focus group sessions, plus many more.

"An immediate challenge facing the (School Board) is that of rebuilding trust and credibility with the community. Because the (School) Board is presently perceived as inaccessible and insulated from the community by the administration, this should be addressed as soon as possible."

The report's first recommendation is for the district to clearly communicate the role, function and responsibilities of the School Board. NSPRA recommends methods of implementing the recommendation, including clearly defining, explaining and communicating policy governance to the staff and community.

Howell, who was hired by the district after the focus groups were held, said a newly formed communication advisory team is working to prioritize and implement many of NSPRA's recommendations.

The School Board hopes to put together brochures on policy governance and the roles of the board and superintendent by Jan. 1. It already has initiated a system to produce and disseminate School Board meeting summaries.

Earlier this month, Howell and School Board President Paul Fisher sent a letter and a copy of the report's executive summary to every focus group participant. The entire report is available on the district's Web site at www.sssd.k12.co.us.

NSPRA applauded the School Board and district administrators for addressing the internal and external perceptions of the district and how it communicates with its stakeholders.

"They have demonstrated their commitment to expanding and improving the district's relationship with its internal and external constituents by supporting the development of a strong communication program district wide," the report reads.

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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