How public board members can prepare for contentious votes
School board members, city council members and county commissioners make difficult decisions every day about a host of issues that impact their communities. As elected boards, these leaders must also balance the various desires (or concerns) of community members.
Public health decisions made during the pandemic, as well as more recent controversies over book bans and critical race theory, have garnered a large share of media headlines. But these aren’t the only topics that spark public outcry. Controversial issues — such as closing schools with low enrollment, raising taxes, changing school calendars, and redrawing attendance boundaries — are guaranteed to produce large crowds at board meetings.
While dealing with controversial issues is part of a board member's job, it has the potential to damage the trust between the board and its stakeholders, and even among individual members.
The challenge of contentious votes
The issues that come before elected members of public boards can be mundane – such as finding the funding to fix potholes or replace the floors in a school gymnasium. But even these issues have the potential to become controversial. For example, neighbors can be fiercely divided on whether their street needs a traffic calming circle or speed bumps.
Decisions about children are especially fraught, as parents are understandably emotionally invested in their children’s education and well-being. They may not care if a decision is good overall for the district if it negatively impacts their child. Closing a neighborhood school with declining enrollment may make good fiscal sense, but parents at that school worry about the long bus rides their children face when attending a school farther away.
The perception that one group of students is being treated unfairly based on their race, ethnicity, or family income can raise the ire of parents and community members, whether that perception is real or not. Deciding to locate a desirable STEM program in a school in high-income neighborhood, for example, or cutting Advanced Placement programs or world languages in a high school that serves minoritized or low-income students will play into those perceptions.
Public boards are under a great deal of scrutiny from the public and the media, and controversial votes and decisions add to that pressure. Board members can struggle to remain above the fray when community members or constituents try to draw them into public debates on social media or during meetings.
Contentious votes can harm relationships among board members and between board members and staff, commissioners, or school board superintendents. Resolving conflicts and finding common ground among board members can be challenging, especially when their ideological differences are deeply entrenched.
To avoid ruining the working relationship among board members and to help their public understand the reasons behind their decisions, public board members need strong communication and negotiation skills. They need to be open and transparent about their decision-making process, and gather information to allow them to consider the long-term impact of their choices on the communities they serve. Public feedback and community collaboration are essential components to successfully navigating contentious issues as a board.
Tips on preparing for votes for board members
When a difficult or contentious vote is coming up, you can prepare to make the best decision and find the best way to communicate the rationale for the decision to your constituents. Use your board software to add private annotations with comments and questions in advance in preparation.
Gather knowledge and information from trusted sources on the issue before you. Base your decision on data, whether it’s enrollment numbers, population growth projections, property value estimates, or teachers’ survey information. Constituents will trust the board and support the outcome if they know you based your decision on the best available information.
Knowledge gathering includes holding public forums for parents, residents, or other constituents. These forums can communicate both ways: They will help board members understand how the issue they are voting on will affect their community. Also, constituents can learn more about the issue and the potential solutions. A tax hike will impact elderly homeowners; not raising taxes could mean teachers won’t get raises and the district could lose them to other districts. Public comment periods at board meetings gives constituents a chance to voice their opinions as well.
Getting information and recommendations from lawyers and other experts is important, as well. How long will a building that needs repairs last? What is the track record on a new curricula or professional development program? How will a homeless shelter affect a neighborhood property values or crime statistics?
Boards also must ensure that their decisions comply with state and federal laws and regulations, which means you might be restrained from considering some solutions if they don’t comply. Record and note the recommendations and constraints so everyone – board members, staff, and the public – can see the data you based your decision upon.
Not all issues are easy to explain to constituents. Deciding on issues such as large infrastructure projects or legal compliance issues will require board members to study and understand the levels, nuances, and consequences of their votes.
Once the vote is taken, the entire board must abide by the decision. It’s important to support the decision and present a united front, even if the decision you favored did not prevail.
Preparation and transparency
Being better prepared and informed when you come to vote on contentious issues while also engaging with the public is crucial. Using board management software can help deliver efficiency in preparation and community transparency.
Software like Diligent Community can support boards as they debate and vote on issues. The document library allows board members and staff to search for and pull up past information quickly if needed. Board members can access information any time, anywhere and on any device. Reports from committees, staff, consultants, or other key stakeholders can be distributed to board members. Communication to the public and your school community through your public transparency website is quick and streamlined allowing you to keep them up to date with a single source of truth.
Contact us today to find out how Diligent Community can support your public board with its governance.