It’s 6 a.m. and subzero temperatures are prompting school closures all across East Idaho.
Blackfoot School District officials take to the district’s Facebook page to make their announcement.
By noon, the Facebook post garners 238 shares, dozens of comments and more than 100 likes.
“Great Christmas present,” parent Kelli Bird writes in the comment section, just below teacher Bekki Mangum’s emoji of a dog and cat locked in a celebratory dance.
Some Idaho school districts have turned to Facebook to communicate with patrons. Administrators say the social media site generates greater transparency, helps identify and dispel rumors and promotes public feedback. It’s also quick and easy.
But most Idaho districts have not jumped on the social media platform. Instead, district officials rely on schools to communicate via social media. Other administrators prefer more traditional means of communication, citing staffing limitations needed to monitor social media.
“It’s really easy for people to say whatever they want to on Facebook these days,” said Rockford School District superintendent Chester Bradshaw. “Bigger districts have the staff to monitor those kinds of things. We don’t.”
Who uses Facebook — and why
Idaho Education News investigations found 64 of 153 Idaho school districts and charters use Facebook to communicate with patrons, and larger districts and charters use it more often.
Bonneville is one of Idaho’s largest districts and its Facebook page has the state’s largest number of “likes” at 4,908. By comparison, the state’s largest school district, West Ada, has 2,875 likes.
Bonneville spokesman Phil Campbell said a strategic approach attracts followers. Weekly district newscasts, daily footage of classroom activities, extracurricular updates and live evening broadcasts of school board meetings all end up on Bonneville’s Facebook page.
It’s all an effort to not only keep patrons informed, Campbell said, but to dispel rumors.
In September, Nampa School District officials reined in rumors about a teacher attacking a 14-year-old student. Patrons’ posts proliferated the false report.
Campbell pointed to rumors surrounding a recent facilities bond in his district. In 2015, a supermajority of patrons approved a $63.5 million measure for a new high school — after three consecutive failed attempts.
“We learned that there were a lot of these incredibly false, just ridiculous, rumors floating around out there about the bond,” Campbell said. “Some people actually thought that the money would go toward raises for administrators.”
Campbell says the rumors reemphasized the need for greater transparency. So Bonneville beefed up its approach to social media, and administrators are glad they did.
Through October, a committee comprised partly of students sifted through some 5,700 suggestions that came in the wake of a Facebook outcry over Bonneville’s adopted name and mascot for the new high school — Black Canyon Phantoms. As a result, the district ditched the name, formed a new naming committee and started the process over, thanks in large part to feedback gleaned from patrons on Facebook. Trustees unanimously settled on Thunder Ridge Titans.
“Facebook helps us know what (patrons) want — and what they don’t want,” Campbell said.
Why districts don’t use Facebook
In contrast to Bonneville and West Ada, the Boise School District turns to Twitter for its social media fix — and touts a hefty 4,568 followers.
Spokesman Dan Hollar said not launching a Facebook page stems less from preference and more from district dynamics. Most Boise schools already have Facebook pages, so in 2010 district administrators turned to Twitter to keep things simple.
But Hollar says the district has learned the value of diversity in its approach to social media. Boise will likely unveil its first Facebook page this month.
In East Idaho, several superintendents leave it to schools to communicate via social media. Others say personnel plays a key role in determining whether to launch a page.
West Jefferson — a sprawling, rural district 30 miles northwest of Idaho Falls — updates its page daily, despite a small office staff. With no paid public information staffer, the task falls to Superintendent Dwight Richins, who embraces Facebook, but says it takes about two hours a week to update and monitor the page.
“We don’t even have a local paper here,” Richins said, “so there’s really no way to get news out, other than a flier from the school.”
Administrators in other small districts say Facebook is just not worth the time.
“We use text, email, phone calls, TV and radio when we need to get the word out,” said Aberdeen superintendent Jane Ward.
Bigger districts seem better equipped for Facebook, Ward said, but more traditional means of communication “work just fine” in Aberdeen.
She also acknowledged the limitations inherent in traditional communication mediums. When asked how Aberdeen fares in terms of gathering public feedback, Ward said: “I don’t know.”
(EdNews reporter and social media expert Andrew Reed provided data and information for this report.)