Millions of Americans went to the polls in November to choose who will sit on the school boards that get to work in January. They may have hesitated to vote for anyone who would be brand new to the board. After all, rookies lack experience. They carry with them no institutional memory. New school board members, though, bring the perspective that school boards need to keep the board communicating openly to the public.
Imagine that a man takes his baby to a baseball game. Hard-wired to recognize patterns, the baby might point incessantly to the many circles in the field of vision: the ball, the sun and the end of the bat. The man has been trained through the years to “keep your eye on the ball!” To him, the series of circles is insignificant: The arc and speed of each pitch are all that matters. He barely notices the many circles in his visual field; they become nothing but “noise.”
As we learn to direct our attention to certain events and not others, we become selectively blind to much that is around us, for good reason: Anyone with the man’s brain is better able to hit the ball. But we miss out on noticing all that we have relegated to the periphery. Buddhists actually follow disciplines to help them regain the state called “beginner’s mind.”
An actual beginner is still a natural at seeing things anew. For a school board, a newcomer not only lacks the conditioning that creates mental ruts for old-timers; they also have recent experience as outsiders of the board – members of the community who hear announcements coming from the school board, attend meetings as guests, and feel a certain chill down their spine if decisions seem to come from left field, without consulting or even notifying the public in the process of considering options. That makes her perfectly poised to point out ways to increase school board transparency. A fresh mind on the board might ask the board four challenging questions:
Fresh Perspective: Just as a little boy was the only one to declare that the emperor had no clothes, a fresh set of eyes could state the obvious: Why are meeting announcements, agendas and minutes posted on the side of a public building, when a Nielsen survey found that the average American spends 10 hours a day online?
Transparency Solution: Posted on a public-facing website, meeting agendas and minutes meet people where they live. With the right software, the public posting can even include audio-video footage of entire meetings – accessible through an icon positioned right alongside the icons for the agenda and minutes. By voluntarily recording the video and posting it, the school board invites scrutiny, which instills trust.
Fresh Perspective: It’s as American as apple pie: An Erin Brockovich or a Carl Bernstein suspects foul play and finds the tape of a phone call or the paper trail behind shady dealings. Implicit in the narrative is yet more cherished American mythology: The investigator is heroic; the government is corrupt. Couldn’t we turn the tables by volunteering all public records where anybody can easily find them as soon as they become available?
Transparency Solution: Turning the tables is easy with digitization. As public records like policies, maps and spreadsheets move from thick binders in dusty basements to online archives, they become useful in more ways than one. Not only can anyone reach the material from anywhere in the world, online material can also empower a researcher to to jump right to the points where their chosen topic has been covered over the years. The best software for posting agendas, minutes and videos also hosts an archive for the storage of all public records – with a twist: Such an archive facilitates a mega-search by keyword. A concerned citizen can find much more information in far less time.
The archive must feature searchability. If a journalist or attorney is looking through 20 years of records, an ordinary online host simply replaces each binder with a new folder. If records are organized by year, a sleuth still must open each of the 20 annual folders, conducting a search within each one. A meta-search not only goes straight to every citation of a keyword, it searches all 20 folders at once.
Fresh Perspective: Nobody likes it when a few disgruntled citizens monopolize all the time at public school board meetings. Who in their right mind would return the next month to repeat the agony? The seasoned board, however, is highly cognizant of open meetings laws that require giving time to any member of the public who wishes to speak. To fresh ears, this may sound like a false dichotomy: Isn’t it possible to honor public meeting laws while imposing some kind of structure or limit to public remarks?
Transparency Solution: It is indeed possible to keep meetings under control without suppressing anybody’s rights. The secret is a system by which speakers sign up before a meeting to request the floor. Absolutely anyone can sign up, so it’s not discriminatory. At the same time, the sign-up process can put needed limits on public remarks. The sign-up sheet can state a time limit for each speaker. It can also specify that each speaker is to stick to only one topic per turn. Since all speakers use the same form, these declarations of limits appear before thing get tense in a meeting, so no particular speaker feels singled out when asked to cede the floor.
Posting and receiving the sign-up forms online makes it easy for anyone to find the forms. Using paper, signing up could require a trip to Town Hall or attendance at the prior meeting. While the meeting is technically “open,” the added inconvenience would effectively keep many people from speaking.
Fresh Perspective: Years of experience can make Executive Sessions seem like a casual protocol, almost a convenience. The newcomer to the board has sat in the audience while the board secretes itself away to consider delicate matters of personnel or bargaining. He knows how “shut out” everyone feels as the board convenes in private. If Executive Sessions recur with a certain frequency, he knows the impression it leaves: that it’s being used only to conduct business without the visibility and accountability that a public audience brings.
Transparency Solution: Executive Session should be pre-announced and explained on the agenda for the meeting. When it is not happening unexpectedly, it does not feel spurious. The best practice is to include on the agenda not only the announcement that an Executive Session is scheduled, but also the verbatim state law that sanctions the need for it. In that way, the public knows the reason the Executive Session is necessary, and the board is consistently reminded of the exact circumstances in which a private session is permitted.
A new member to a school board can see gaps in transparency that seasoned members don’t recognize. By welcoming these new voices, a school board can reconnect with constituents in a spirit of candor, reciprocity and inclusion.