March Advocacy Tip: Legislative & Candidate Forums

As we mentioned in a recent post here as well as in WASB Executive Director John Ashley’s latest School News column, now is an excellent opportunity for you to partner with neighboring districts to hold a legislative forum or candidate forum in your area.

With election season rapidly approaching, half of the state Senate and all Assembly seats will be up for election this fall.  It is never too early to plan and get items on legislators’ and candidates’ schedules.  This will be an important opportunity to get your lawmakers on record on important issues as we head into the next legislative session and state budget process.

Legislative forums are relatively easy to set up.  The WASB Advocacy Toolkit contains guidance (see page 9) on planning for and setting up these legislative and candidate forums.  The WASB can provide assistance by contacting legislators, drafting invitations, and developing potential questions. The same steps can be followed for candidate forums.

The 10 steps to a successful legislative forum:

1. Determine whom to invite
Legislative and regional boundaries typically lend themselves to determining which legislators and school districts to invite. Legislative contact information is available at the Legislature’s website; candidate contact information is available on the Government Accountability Board website.

2. Decide on a format
If the attendance is expected to be relatively small or you are inviting just one state or federal legislator, you may want to hold a roundtable meeting to foster a conversation between all of the participants. If the attendance is expected to be larger with multiple legislators, a more structured forum may be appropriate. There are numerous ways to structure a legislative forum with various degrees of formality. Here’s just one way:

  • A speaker welcomes the legislators, introduces the moderator and closes the forum.
  • Legislators get three minutes for an opening statement, one minute to answer each question and two minutes for a closing statement.
  • The moderator asks the opening question(s).
  • Audience members put their questions in writing and submit them to the moderator.
  • Legislators alternate answering questions first and include any rebuttals in their closing statements.

3. Select a date, time and site
No date is ever perfect, but try to avoid obvious conflicts. Mondays often work well because state legislators are usually in Madison from Tuesday through Thursday during the regular session. To find out what would work best for your legislators, simply contact their staff and ask. For the site, a school building is ideal, but make sure you have adequate seating.

4. Establish ground rules
During the forum, consistency and fairness are essential to a successful forum and give each legislator an equal opportunity to communicate his/her message. You may want to establish some additional ground rules, such as: legislators must appear themselves, no substitutes; no campaign material may be distributed during the forum; and questions and statements must relate to public K-12 education. You may also want to require that questions be written in advance so that your moderator can screen them.  This also prevents audience members from giving “speeches” rather than asking questions.

5. Send the invitations
Send each legislator, school board member and administrator a written invitation four to six weeks in advance. More notice may be needed if inviting congressional representatives. Include the date, time and location (include a map or directions if needed). It may also be helpful to specify which legislators and school districts are being invited. For the legislators, include the program format and ground rules. Specify a definite date and contact person for responses from both legislators and school officials. Follow up with legislators with a phone call and plan to confirm two to three days prior to the forum.

6. Notify the media
Inform the local media about the forum as well as any parent, teacher and other civic groups who may be interested in attending. You may also want to consider inviting a local reporter or editor to serve as moderator (which may help assure media coverage as well).

7. Recruit a speaker, moderator and timer
You will need one person from the host school district to open the forum, introduce the legislators and moderator, and make the closing announcements. The speaker may also serve as the moderator. A person will be needed to keep track of time if you expect legislators to stick to specific limits.

8. Finalize the logistics
Depending upon the format, you may want to provide a podium or head table, microphones and water for the speakers. In addition, name tags are usually a good idea and refreshments are always welcome.

9. Take notes
During the forum, make note of the legislators’ positions and any commitments they provide. This will be useful in future communications with legislators and allow you to better hold them accountable for their votes.

10. Follow up
Send thank you letters to the participating legislators, any school district staff who assisted in making the arrangements, the moderator, timer, and any other volunteers. Then, make plans for your next legislative forum.