School board meetings have a reputation as being the Ground Zero of unbridled passion, spontaneous outbursts and partisan bickering. The spirit of democracy leaves many feeling entitled to unlimited self-expression, and intergenerational aspirations tap the deepest sinews of hope and fear. It is entirely possible to prevent chaos in meetings, harnessing the enthusiasm of the community for the benefit of students. The solution is simple: Create, publicize and enforce a detailed code of etiquette for school board meetings.
Ask for What You Want
After a particularly exacerbating display of tempers, labels and hyperbole, a school board chair may ask himself: “Did I even have any ground rules that I could have enforced in the moment?” In a surprising number of cases, the answer is “no.”
Consider: If you preferred that guests not track dirt into your house, but you didn’t ask them to remove their shoes, you would be left to fester with judgment when friends dragged mud and twigs across your Persian carpet. Without stating a single expectation, the leader of a rules-free meeting may fume with the rhetorical question: “Why don’t they know what is normal behavior – the way humans know to behave?” All too often, the rules are left unformed and unstated, as if other people could read your mind – even though visitors represent a wide range of cultural backgrounds and personal histories.
An increasingly informal public culture resists etiquette as if it represented the shackles of a puritanical preacher or a schoolyard bully. Especially if the board wants to appear friendly, it may regard all imposition of structure as de facto persecution. Nothing could be further from the truth: Stating standards sets a tone of professionalism. Do you want civility, respect and self-restraint? Ask for it.
Set the Rules
If you don’t know where to start, a constructive first step is simply to adopt the protocols of Robert’s Rules of Order. That act alone imposes considerable direction to potentially rambling meetings. Topics for discussion become clear moments in a decision-making process of a specified duration. One person at a time clearly “has the floor.” The chairman stays in the rightful role of traffic controller throughout the meeting.
To those rules, add rules of etiquette that broadcast your answers to the following questions:
Open-meeting laws will specify the due date for distributing the agenda. A great chairperson models order and courtesy by attaching to the agenda a concise compilation of committee reports to be voted on in a single action, links to attached readings and specific directives on the status of each agenda item: Is it up for a final vote? Was it previously tabled so outside experts could be consulted? Is it in an early phase of taking the temperature of community reactions? To slap the verb “discuss” before each agenda item begs the question: “Why bother?”
The answer must always be inflexible and affirmative. When recruiting new board members, the chair should talk at length with each candidate to clarify that attendance at meetings is not enough for this position of uncommon trust. Each member is expected to be punctual, prepared and polite. Each must also read the entire board packet and come prepared with any questions or comments. A meeting cannot devolve into a public reading of material that everyone had the opportunity to study in advance.
Ground rules can simply forbid interruptions. Guidelines can ensure that comments are brief, focused and relevant. Determine which rules you want to govern board members and public attendees.
When and where will minutes be posted? Will they include video footage of the meeting? (Doing so, free of charge, creates a spirit of transparency. It conveys good will more effectively than having a “no-rules, nice-guy” style of meeting!)
Communicate! Communicate! Communicate!
Imagine how smoothly rough moments in a meeting could be resolved if you’d pre-posted your district’s standards of etiquette! As someone cuts off another speaker, the ground is already set for stopping the interrupter without appearing to pick favorites. When a commenter strays from the topic, you can easily remind her of the one-point-at-a-time rule. The etiquette guidelines should appear prominently on the district’s public-facing website, in a printed code of conduct and on the wall at meetings. Be sure that they are translated into the native languages of all in the district.
Hardly an affectation, a code of etiquette for school board meetings is essential to orderly proceedings. With such clear guidelines widely publicized, everyone attending your meetings knows that without a personal lecture that respect and professionalism will prevail. They also know that you will not waste their time with an aimless or aborted meeting. While you may expect to encounter resistance to the rules, you will find that you get gratitude – and results.
“Board Meeting Etiquette,” Candace Smith Etiquette at candacesmithetiquette.com
Bledsoe (TN) Public Schools website.
Coeur d’Alene Public Schools (ID) website.
Tulsa Public Schools, “School Board Policy Manual” February 2016.