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 MeetingTwo 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.
Determine the Post Procedural Policies
- Discussion of conflicts cannot continue after a majority vote has settled the matter.
- Input on school board matters by all concerned members of the public shall be limited to 30 minutes.
- Any one board member may address any one motion item no more than two times.
- 'New Business' items will be limited to those posted on the agenda. Anyone can submit agenda items to the Chair up to five days before each meeting. Any issues raised during the meeting will be discussed at the following meeting. (Some state laws prohibit this rule.)
- Members of the public must sign up in advance if they wish to speak, stating what they'll speak on.
- The meeting will not include complaints about school personnel; such discussion should be taken privately to local administrators.
- Only board members may make or amend a motion; members of the public may not do so.
- The Superintendent also may not make or amend a motion.
Set the Agenda and Post It Publicly
Facilitate Contact Before the Meeting
At the MeetingMost 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 platform.
After the MeetingThe 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.
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