Planning a candidate forum
TCTA highly recommends candidate forums as an excellent way to learn about potential school board members and legislators, as well as a terrific opportunity to begin or continue good working relationships with these important policymakers. They are a good way for a local association to get politically involved without partisanship. And public events like these can increase the visibility of your local association and TCTA.
The form and content of a candidate forum can be unique to each event. However, the following guidelines may help you structure a successful and interesting meeting.
1. Divide and delegate. Even a small event can overwhelm an individual trying to do it all. We’d suggest that you work with your CTA officers on planning the forum, and divide up responsibilities. Some CTAs have called on local high school government classes for help. If you work well with other teacher associations in your district, consider holding the forum jointly with them.
2. Allow plenty of time for planning. If possible, give yourself at least four weeks prior to the elections to plan and hold the event. Remember that many people take advantage of early voting, so keep that in mind when scheduling the event.
3. Consider all your options for structuring the forum. The main idea is to allow the candidates to get their message across to the audience while ensuring that the audience is provided a real opportunity to get to know the goals and personality of each candidate. Here are some of the options:
- Formal debate
- Informal question and answer session
- Prepared statement from candidates, followed by questions
- Questions from the audience or from a panel, or a combination of both
- Questions provided to candidates prior to forum, or spontaneous
4. Find a good moderator. The moderator should be personable, but assertive enough to follow up on unanswered questions and keep the meeting moving. Sometimes local print/broadcast journalists or college professors prove to be good moderators.
5. Publicize the event. Prepare catchy flyers for posting in teachers’ lounges and other appropriate spots on campus. If you’re inviting the public, post the flyers in public places like the grocery store. Send the flyer or a letter to your community calendar, local newspapers, radio stations and TV stations, and invite them to send a reporter to cover the event. If you have the funds, place an ad in the paper. In all your publicity efforts, be sure to advertise prominently your local CTA’s involvement.
6. Invite all the candidates, within reason. “Fringe” candidates who do not have a realistic chance of getting elected may be a distraction (but use your judgment).
7. Be sure to send the important information to the participants. When you have the structure of the forum determined and know where and when it is to be held, send a letter to all the candidates. Let them know who the audience will be, as they might prepare differently for a group of educators than for the general public.
8. Try to think of all the details, both small and large. You’ll probably want to have water available for the candidates, for example, and you might want to provide them with paper and pencil for taking notes throughout the meeting. Name tags and/or place cards are a good idea. If you expect a large audience and/or will be using a large room, consider a raised stage of some sort and a sound system. Some details will merely make it a more pleasurable event, while others can make or break the meeting, and the further ahead of time you begin planning the less likely it is that you will forget something important.
9. Treat all candidates fairly. You may wish to have them draw straws or flip a coin to determine speaking order. If several candidates will be attending, it may be best to alternate the order of answering so that one person is not always first or last. Be sure not to give a candidate you favor any advantage, such as providing information to that candidate that you did not provide to the others.
10. Try to keep the atmosphere non-confrontational. Don’t forget, you will have to work with the winners in the near future. But do make sure your questions get answered to your satisfaction.
11. Don’t hesitate to call on TCTA staff for assistance in identifying issues that should be discussed at the forum.
Be sure to notify campus and district administrators of your plans. You can ask them to participate in some way (to serve on a panel, for instance), invite them to attend, or just let them know what’s going on.
Keep in mind when sending correspondence to incumbent candidates that elected officials should be addressed as “The Honorable John Smith”. When speaking to them at the forum, their title (“Representative Smith” or “Senator Jones”) should be used. Other candidates should be addressed as Mr. or Mrs./Ms., or by any other appropriate title such as Dr. or Judge.