Imagine the headline: “Constituents from different sectors of the community exchange ideas with dedicated servants of public education.” “Great!” you think, “What could possibly go wrong?” Nearly everything, it turns out. In school board meetings, balancing board discretion with public openness is no small task, and channeling constituent passion is easier said than done. Any misstep threatens the trust and transparency essential to making big things happen. However, with proper planning, any school board can overcome the five most common mistakes of school board meetings: a vague agenda, poor time management, no clear speaker protocol, overuse of executive session and stubborn attachment to paper materials.
If the school board secretary thinks of the agenda as merely a list of topics to be covered, the meeting could be unproductive, if not downright chaotic. A simple list of topics does not indicate what action needs to take place on each item. The predictable result is a pattern of meetings that rehash the same arguments but never get anything done. Attendees will quickly learn that the meetings waste their time and stop showing up.
A more specific agenda indicates what action needs to be taken on each item. In constructing such an agenda, the secretary will consult the minutes of past meetings. Each agenda item passes through stages, with a few forks in the road. An idea may first come up for initial discussion, leading to a motion to act.
If that motion is seconded and approved, then the motion requires follow-up that could take several meetings to complete. It could be tabled, sent to a committee for study, or sent to an outside consultant for further research. In any such case, the item needs to re-enter a future meeting, where it faces possible presentation of findings, final discussion and then a decisive vote – perhaps at another meeting entirely.
The telltale sign of a vague agenda is the word “discuss” before absolutely every item. Some items should follow terms such as “hear committee assessment of” or “vote on.” Everyone reading the agenda will know what needs to happen in the meeting.
One symptom of a vague agenda is that nobody knows how much of the meeting’s time should be spent on each item. If a school board lists “old business” before “new business,” the risk arises that the old business section will eat up most of the time, leaving too little time for important matters under “new business.” However the agenda is structured, early items can leave too little time for later ones.
A school board that votes separately on each committee report will waste precious time that could be saved by a consent agenda (with which all committee reports and minutes are voted on all at once). The telltale sign of a school board meeting that does not plan out time expenditures is that the agenda calls for each committee report and the minutes to be read aloud in the meeting.
To preserve time for the most important issues, the agenda should indicate the time allotted to each item. With that projection in print, the chairman does not seem partial when he signals that it’s time to move on to the next item. The culture of the school board should also make it clear that board members are expected to read agenda attachments before coming to meetings.
Some school board meetings are derailed by the loudest speakers from the public, whether or not they address the topics on the agenda. Such meetings indicate that the school board has not determined, announced or enforced speaker protocols. Consistently using Robert’s Rules of Order is a step in the right direction; it creates the expectation that only one person at a time has the floor, that the chair can determine who has the floor and that each speaker can address only one topic at a time.
Beyond common parliamentary procedure, each school board should have its own way of channeling public energy for speaking so that interruptions do not undermine the agenda.
Maybe speakers have to sign up online in advance of the meeting, proposing to speak on a specified topic for a set time. Perhaps the last 15 minutes of every meeting are reserved for impromptu public speakers. Whatever the details, the existence of a planned time for hearing such remarks allows the chairman to stop interruptions without silencing public input altogether.
Nothing undermines public confidence like the impression that the board is making decisions in private. Votes of no confidence commonly come from citizens who insist that the board didn’t mention a significant project to the public until it was in the closing stages of implementation. The public, in that case, had no chance to contribute to the debates when the plans were first being considered. It should come as no surprise when they are not amused.
Frequent unplanned declarations of executive session raise suspicions that the board is maneuvering while keeping constituents in the dark. Instead, the school board should announce on the agenda when an executive session is needed. That announcement should include the rationale for the closed session, showing exactly how it fits the standards listed in the state’s sunshine laws (e.g., it might be considering negotiating tactics). It’s not a bad idea to quote that law verbatim – and to add it to the minutes to document the board’s responsible use of executive session.
A school board that distributes the agenda, readings, committee reports, minutes and presentation notes in hard copy may create chaos in meetings and compromise security to boot. If each person in the room starts shuffling through his or her briefcase to find a document that has become relevant, the chair might never regain the group’s focus on a shared conversation. In a paperless meeting, the board secretary can pull up the reading to project on a screen in front of the room. The group unity stays intact, and everybody is on the same page.
Storing, distributing and showing digital versions of materials keeps everybody on the same page during the meeting. During the meeting, what if the secretary could even find and display materials that become important even though they were not planned on the agenda? It is possible if the online repository of the materials is comprehensive and searchable. The best board meeting agenda software includes an archive in which the school board can store all manner of historical documents and topical reports in a database that is fully searchable by keyword. Within the meeting, the secretary can call the group’s attention to a shared document that was not anticipated.
Careful planning keeps the savvy school board in the driver’s seat so that common meeting mistakes don’t arise at all. Frustration turns to inspiration as meetings get right to the point, allot time responsibly, direct all attendees to needed materials, limit private deliberations by the board and channel public passion into speaking opportunities that do not steal the show.