The U.S. Supreme Court has termed the American school board “a most vital civic institution for the preservation of a democratic system of government.” Flashpoints of the democratic process itself, school board meetings can be loud, messy and slow. Is it possible to bring order to these meetings while keeping them representative and participatory? The answer is a resounding “yes.” Running a smooth, purposeful school board meeting is an acquired skill. Follow these tips (adapted from the Georgia School Board Association) to harness the energy and ideas in the room to get business done.
BEFORE THE MEETING
Two principles steer the ship at all phases of the meeting preparation, execution and follow-up. The first: There shall be no surprises. The second: Chaotic discussions cannot waylay the business of the meeting. These rules require considerable planning in advance of the meeting: both posting ground rules and making the agenda available.
Be sure that the ground rules of the meeting are known to all, not only to the chairperson. Remember that some of the public participants are first-time visitors, and some may have never participated in a professional meeting before. They will not necessarily assume many customs that seem obvious to you. You will not need to repeat the work of clarifying your procedural policies, but devote a day to it now if you have never had explicit ground rules. You will need to confirm that these rules are posted widely prior to each meeting.
These rules set the groundwork for more or less directed, focused deliberations in the course of the meeting. Some states require particular published rules to be followed – e.g., the most recent edition of Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised. If your state has such a requirement, follow it. If it doesn’t, you are well advised to start with any version of Robert’s Rules of Order and make only the adjustments that you deem necessary. (See www. robertsrules.com for ordering information.) Many states allow some tweaking of set rules.
Certain fine points of parliamentary procedure determine how permissive or restrictive your meeting will be. Again, your state may have guidelines that take these decisions out of your hands; you should check on those. Merely informational meetings could have laxer rules than the more typical assembly charged with making decisions, solving problems, planning programs and evaluating existing initiatives. Assuming your meetings are not merely informational, we highly recommend stronger limits to keep business on track in a setting that is notoriously prone to outbursts. Post publicly, before the meeting and at the meeting, these rules:
Items to Include in Parliamentary Procedure for Focused School Board Meetings
Once you have determined the exact rules to govern your meetings, put them on the website and have them posted visibly at the meeting. While you need not mention it as a policy, we do not recommend subjecting the agenda itself to a vote of approval; it sends the signal that limits and structure are negotiable.
This seemingly simple task actually involves several steps:
Up to five days before the meeting. The chair should invite submission of agenda items and collect them.
Four days before the meeting. While many school boards also have the chair create the agenda, the state of Georgia has profited from holding a work session of the Superintendent and the board chair (or vice chair) to promote communication and instill confidence.
Whoever composes the agenda must decide who is responsible for each item. Do not leave this to chance! Experienced chairs encourage the most broad-based participation possible. Committee reports and ad hoc project updates should be assigned to different people; this small act increases attendance, participation and ownership. Contact presenters personally, apart from publicly distributing the agenda, to ensure that they know they are expected to contribute something specific.
Three days before the meeting. Post the agenda publicly. Traditionally, posting the agenda and all supporting documents is the job of the Superintendent.
Board members should know how to communicate with the Superintendent prior to the meeting to clarify items on the agenda. It is imperative that such contact not violate sunshine laws by brokering private deals or shoring up votes.
AT THE MEETING
Most meetings begin with minutes of the last meeting and committee reports. It saves time to vote only once on all of these matters, with the voting compressed into what is called a “consent agenda.” The chair must keep the discussion and voting on schedule. The agenda will post an end time for the meeting; it might also give an end time for each agenda item.
You will be grateful at this point that matters of parliamentary procedure have been determined and posted. A chair who simply enforces those rules will keep conversation on track so that needed votes are taken. You have already decided, for example, if any one person may speak only twice (or, say, for only five minutes) on a given matter. That creates an impersonal way to rein in someone who would like to talk more.
A good chair has an instinct for asking that comments be converted into motions. The chair should then restate each motion, clearing up any vague wording. The person who made the motion should speak first in the discussion. Some chairs alternate pro and con comments. The chair is also free to call directly on board members who may have special knowledge on the matter who are not as talkative. Discussion ceases when a board member “calls the question,” at which point a vote is taken.
In closing the meeting, BoardSource Senior Governance Consultant Bruce Lesley recommends that the chair summarize discussions and actions taken. The closing should also be positive, with thanks extended to volunteers for their work. The format for any communications after the meetings (e.g., email) can be specified. Comments could be directed to a single public online dropbox.
AFTER THE MEETING
The U.S. Department of Education — as well as most school districts — requires official minutes to be posted publicly within a specified time frame. Many school boards now also post video or sound recordings of meetings.
The press may contact board members or members of the public who spoke in the meeting about votes that were taken or about discussions that remain to be voted on at the next meeting. Board members must remember that when they speak to the press, they are not representing the board as a whole.
If you follow all of these steps, you will run outstanding school board meetings that invite needed input without getting sidetracked in emotional, or even hostile, verbal conflicts. Without imposing tyranny, it prevents meetings from erupting into the shouting matches that undermine public confidence. With good governance, even school boards — those heated microcosms of democracy in action — can get the job done.