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Schools to take comment by phone

January 23, 2000|By BRUCE HAMILTON

People who can't come to public hearings on Schools Superintendent Herman G. Bartlett Jr.'s proposed $120 million budget can soon let their fingers do the talking.

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Beginning Wednesday, the school system is conducting a telephone survey that allows people to call an 800 number and rate budget items on a scale of one to six.

The survey also records 30 seconds of comments from each caller. The Washington County Board of Education will use the information to craft its budget proposal.

The School Board hired Voice Poll Communications of Everett, Wash., which will provide a toll-free number for 10 days and compile the responses in a final report for $3,500.

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The money comes from a board fund used for travel and other incidental expenses, according to Community Relations Specialist Donna Messina.

Frederick County Schools used the same company to perform a similar survey for the first time last year. Communications Specialist Marita Stup Loose said the system got 2,300 responses in 10 days.

"We've been very happy with it," she said. "The information has been very valuable." The survey showed support for the budget, according to Loose.

"They found the public's priorities closely paralleled the board's priorities," she said.

Frederick County Schools will use a voice poll again later this year to gauge the public's reaction to increasing graduation requirements, according to Loose.

The telephone survey is part of a "strategic communications plan" Messina presented to the Washington County Board of Education last week. The plan was created to improve communication and engage the community in establishing educational priorities, she said.

Although the School Board holds public hearings on the budget, attendance has been poor in recent years, Messina said. "We recognize that we must now explore other ways to engage the community."

The telephone survey may appeal to those who want to comment on the budget, but not in person. "We recognize that not all citizens interested in public education are able to physically attend a public hearing," Messina said.

The plan includes School Board members writing letters to the newspaper and speaking to local civic groups. The board will also draft a letter to the Chamber of Commerce business education subcommittee.

The board plans to buy four newspaper ads "designed to advance understanding of educational priorities," Messina said. Board members will record radio public service announcements and invite County Commissioners for one-on-one discussions.

The telephone survey is anonymous and confidential. It takes about five minutes. Once a person calls the number, which has not yet been released, he or she will hear a brief welcome message.

Participants are asked to identify themselves as a resident with children in the school system, a resident without children in the school system, a school system employee, a student or someone who lives outside the county.

Callers then answer 10 to 15 questions. After a brief description of the budget items, they can enter a ranking number. One means "not at all important" and six means "extremely important" while seven means "no opinion."

At the conclusion, callers can use up to 30 seconds to record a message about any budget item or make a general comment. Up to three calls from each household will be accepted to encourage family participation, according to Messina.

The survey will be open from Jan. 26 to Feb. 6, and a summary report will be provided the day after it ends, according to Messina. The telephone number will be available on the first day of the survey, and it will be printed in The Morning Herald.

The School Board will hold a public hearing on its budget proposal Feb. 8.

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