Running a successful school board meeting should be easy: Follow the agenda, maintain a tone of respect and present the information needed to hold a vote. It doesn’t sound hard. Yet school board meetings often fall apart. Maybe nobody’s done the background reading. Or there’s no plan for handling interruptions. Or perhaps the chairman can’t put his hands on important documents. Maybe it is unclear what action is to be taken on each item. Or the public senses that the board is secretive, with votes arranged before the meeting. Following these nine guidelines will eliminate these common barriers to a productive, cooperative and transparent school board meeting:
According to Education Week, a leading cause of school board dysfunction is the presence of prima donnas on the board. Being king or queen of one’s own campaign does not prepare a person to be a good team member. Every school board member must learn before he attends any meetings that only the board as a body has the authority to make decisions, that dissent from a policy ends once the board adopts the policy, and that the superintendent alone supervises the faculty and staff. Imparting this knowledge in board orientation materials – and reinforcing it regularly at meetings – prevents embarrassing cases of overreach in the course of the meeting.
With meetings and agendas posted online, it is now possible to provide access to background readings that are just a keystroke away for board members and members of the public alike. It’s easy to include links to URLs or documents. The easy access makes it more likely that everyone will actually read them and come to the meeting prepared, preventing the squandering of time often spent briefing people on basic facts.
With BoardDocs, an unlimited online archive houses not only the documents for a particular meeting, but also historical records, minutes of past meetings, maps, budgets — you name it. So a meeting participant can click on a link to get the assigned readings and even dig into other materials as needed. Best of all, the entire archive is fully searchable by keyword.
“But the public shouldn’t read the board packet! It contains sensitive information!” That’s right, and BoardDocs has taken care of that. Role-based authorizations ensure that the general public opens versions of documents that are attached to the appropriate role. This allows the public to only open documents that should be available to them, while the board can see the complete set of documents.
Approving the minutes of the last meeting and committee reports should not take more than a couple of minutes. Creating a consent agenda puts them all up for a single vote. As they would be attachments linked to the agenda, people would have time to read them before the meeting.
A constituent could attend a meeting without having been to any past meetings. He may assume he is there to defend a policy even though discussion of the matter has closed, with a vote scheduled at this meeting. Alternatively, every single meeting can get bogged down in discussions that never end, so that nothing gets accomplished.
The solution is to state clearly on the agenda not just each item to be addressed, but exactly what action needs to be taken on it. Is the meeting open for initial discussion? Are board members ready to hear a consultant’s report? Is this the time for a decisive vote?
A school board meeting of 10 people can quickly devolve into 10 separate searches for materials that would help the group consider a matter at hand. Eyes turn from the group to each person’s backpack, briefcase or paper pile, and rummaging ensues. The chairman will have to struggle to reclaim a shared focal point and a single, coherent conversation. In a paperless meeting with access to a searchable archive, the secretary can quickly pull up the needed document and project it onto a screen. The group’s unity continues apace. (Double-check the HDMI or VGA connections before the meeting!)
Robert’s Rules of Order gives the chairman the tools to pre-empt the interruptions that threaten to hijack the meeting. It provides protocols that make it clear that one person at a time gets to speak and that the chairman must grant “the floor” to a speaker. It also guarantees the fairness of votes taken. Crucially, when someone interrupts a speaker, the chairman has the power to redirect the meeting without appearing to play favorites. He can state: “Russell still has the floor.” or “There’s a process for introducing new topics to be addressed in the next meeting.” It is important to use the rules and vocabulary of the rules of order throughout every meeting, lest it seem that they are applied selectively to “attack” an unwanted speaker.
With an online presence, it’s possible to handle constituent complaints outside of meetings. Available 24 hours a day, a simple online form can field input from the disgruntled, and the administration can provide rapid feedback. Resentments don’t fester to the point of exploding when the meeting finally rolls around.
Frequent, spontaneous executive sessions create the appearance of government secrecy, which undermines the fragile public trust on which school boards rely. The best practice is to limit executive sessions to those announced on the agenda, along with the rationale for the session — even quoting verbatim the state policy on what justifies a closed session.
Tired of school board meetings that become shouting matches, catch-up briefings for the unprepared or platforms for board stars who think they can make unilateral pronouncements? Applying these simple guidelines can transform the experience entirely. Productivity and public buy-in seem to increase naturally as meetings become more focused and transparent.
John Mannes, “The Problem with our School Boards,” Education Week March 3, 2015
OSBA (Oregon), “Is Your School Board Dysfunctional?”