Focus

Preventing Personal Platforms at Board Meetings

by Tom Tasma

When a board of trustees appointed me a district superintendent at age 30, I was forced to deal with my apprehensions about conducting a board meeting and how to relate to members of the board.

So during my first three years, I made it a point to attend at least three board meetings per year in neighboring school districts. I would meet with the superintendent a week before the meeting to discuss how he or she communicated with board members and prepared for the meeting. Then I'd come back to observe the operation of the meeting and conduct of the participants.

Since then, I've learned a lot about board meetings in 12 years as a superintendent—most notably that boards are charged with an awesome responsibility to perform a prescribed function in a limited amount of time. Time needs to be used wisely and judiciously through a decision-making process that focuses on issues that promote the growth and development of education. Each member of the board should have a thorough understanding of his or her part in the process and how board members function within that process in their role as ambassadors for public schools in their community.

As the district's highest-level decision makers, school board trustees should set the ultimate example of protocol and decorum, and public board meetings should be conducted with a high degree of integrity and professionalism.

How we do what we do, and how we look while we are doing it, has a substantial impact on the public's perception and impression of the duties they have entrusted us to perform. District policies or administrative procedures may provide valuable descriptions and definitions for conducting meetings of the board and prescribed actions taken by board members. Those policies and procedures serve as a point of reference from which a constructive dialogue can lead to the conduct of productive meetings.

Wayward Requests

School board meetings are for discussing the business of the district and making decisions of a magnitude that require board action. Board members should determine what issues may be placed on the meeting agenda for board consideration and action and how those issues should be placed on the agenda. They must decide to what extent board members should be able to ask questions or debate items on the agenda.

Once early in my career, the wife of a board member convinced her husband to request an agenda item to discuss how the cafeteria staff prepared enchiladas because she contended they were not hot enough when served for lunch. It would have been more appropriate for her to submit a complaint to school officials in accordance with district policy.

Another time, while attending a school law workshop, I listened to a board member from another district inquire about getting items placed on the meeting agendas in his district. He said the superintendent required a consensus of the board before any proposed item would be included. The superintendent's rationale for this approach, the board member reported, was to make the most productive use of board meeting time by focusing on matters that warranted board action.

The school attorney who was leading the session gave the board member her business card and recommended he give her a call. The attorney should have said, "Check your board policy. If you don't like the process, amend the policy."

I later discovered that the items the board member wanted to include on the meeting agendas had more to do with his candidacy for county commissioner than furthering the interests of public education.

School board policies often include a statement about when to ask questions or accept questions from a third person, such as a parent or student group representative, a vendor, a service provider or community organization leader. The supposition is that you solicit answers to questions that contribute to the decision the board is being asked to make. It is unlikely that enough time has been allotted for a board member to acquire a full knowledge of the subject.

The board meeting, for the most part, is not a time for questions and answers. The board meeting is a time for deliberation and decision making. The time to research and become knowledgeable enough about items on the agenda is before the meeting.

Time Wasters

Too often I have seen board members avoid making difficult decisions by asking questions until they find one with an answer that is not fully or readily available, such as "How cold will the ice cream be when it is served?" I also have watched board members pose unnecessary questions to publicly demonstrate their diligence in overseeing the district, such as "I noticed the bid specification contains a statement about the quality of the product. Will the manufacturer guarantee that it will be fresh?" I would not undervalue good-quality communication, but questions should be kept in perspective and in the most productive place.

The boardroom is not the place to promote a personal platform. While recognizing our differences of opinion on such matters, it takes all of us working together in harmony to support compromises that contribute to the growth and development of our schools.

Tom Tasma is superintendent of the Royal Independent School District, P.O. Box 489, Pattison, Texas 77466. E-mail: ttasma@royal.isd.esc4.net