Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Power of a Good Question

In the short time I worked for an urban school district as director of communications, I traveled to almost all of the city’s schools. I saw parts of my metropolitan community that I had never been in before; I saw neighborhoods that I didn’t even know existed.

Like the elementary school that sat by itself, isolated by lots around it so long abandoned that trees had taken roots about the weeds. The school had bars on the windows on the second floor. The eight-foot fence around the school was topped with barbed wire. And to enter the steel entrance door, you had to look at the surveillance camera mounted high on the building and be buzzed through.

In spite of that, with all of the schools I visited, with all of the crises I had to deal with, I never felt unsafe, not even at night, not even when 400 people would be shouting in a school board meeting, or 2,000 people would be massed outside in the parking lot.

Perhaps it was ignorance on my part, or assurance. Or both.

The school district’s budget was a shambles; the district was utilizing deficit spending and had been for some time, and hadn’t known it. The day of reckoning had arrived, and the acting superintendent, acting chief financial officer (CFO) and top financial administrators had prepared the possible options for dealing with the crisis. All the choices were bad.

Rather than impose one of the draconian solutions (and all of the options were draconian), officials decided to take the message out to the district – to parents, teachers, students, voters and taxpayers. A series of meetings in different parts of the city were being planned, not only to present the administration’s options but also to solicit ideas from everyone on other possible actions.

This had never been done before.

The CFO called 30 of us into a meeting in his office, which, while nice, was designed to hold perhaps 10 people comfortably. Fifteen was a squeeze. Thirty was like a sardine can. I remember I was sitting on the floor. We were the people who would be making the presentations and answering questions. All of the meetings were scheduled in the evening.

As the CFO walked us through the options and the school locations selected for the meetings, he was interrupted by a long-time administrator.

“I am not going into that building,” she said, referring to one of the high schools. “It is not safe at any time of the day or night, and I’m not going into it.”

The ensuing silence in the room was profound. She had articulated what many of the people on the room were thinking. I could see heads nodding.

No one, including the CFO, knew what to say.

Leave it to the politically naive communications guy to ask the obvious, from his commanding position on the floor.

“If the school is unsafe at any time of the day or night, what are we doing sending children into it every day?”

It was a question no one could answer, or would answer. Some looked away. But no one responded.

Finally, the CFO said, “Let’s get on with finalizing the plans for the presentations.” Everyone went where they were assigned. No one’s safety was threatened. The presentations were made; the community was able to participate in helping the school district make a difficult choice.

A good question can make needed change happen.

The High Calling is hosting a community linkup this week on “The Power of Good Questions.” Please visit the site to see other posts, and consider sharing your own story.

Top photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Good Question Image by Mary Anne Morgan; designed by Kris Camealy. Both used with permission. 

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