Managing Conflict at Public Forums

by John E. Regan

Your board of education has scheduled a public hearing to solicit input on proposed attendance boundary changes and cuts to the instructional program. As the chief administrator, you must be there to respond to questions.

How will you keep from being pummeled and pelted by rude "in-your-face" types who are likely to attend? How will you control the meeting so it yields useful information for the board and administration and allows as much two-way communication as possible?

Dealing successfully with such hazardous, conflict-prone meetings requires a set of strategies. These strategies can be adapted to most circumstances in a school district. They center around nine important decision areas and should be structured ahead of time by those running the meeting.

School boards have a legal duty to conduct their business in public. They are entitled to do so without undue interference. Citizens have the right to be heard, but they do not have the right to disrupt or prevent the conduct of board business. These conflicting rights must be balanced over the course of an open meeting.

Preliminary Steps

A small group of major stakeholders can determine the strategies for the meeting. The purpose of the meeting needs to be identified up front. Strategies then follow. Consider these issues: Will we answer questions or concerns? Will we just listen and take notes? Will we defend our prior decision?

My experience suggests you will raise the emotional pitch least by taking input first to structure your proposal, then make the proposal public. Emotions will rise when you start with your plan, then field comments. You raise the emotional stakes the most by placing a completed plan in front of the board for approval without allowing citizen input.

Another strategy that works well is to present the decision-making framework to those attending prior to taking input. The framework might include the need to maintain a balanced budget, federal or state regulations, the criteria to be used in making the decision, and the timeline.

Always take the high road. This means no matter how disrespectful or belligerent or condescending the speaker gets, those answering for the board or administration always must maintain a professional, even-handed stance in their reply. This composure is essential for two reasons:

* the public expects that of us and will behave respectfully in most cases unless we lower the level of respect by becoming emotional and judgmental, and

* the majority of those attending will respect the authority of the board or administration to make a decision unless the respondent’s behavior fails to warrant that respect. Over the years I’ve seen many parents or community members who were out of line apologize for their behavior after the formal meeting. (Once, two individuals approached me after a public hearing with the disrespectful member in tow and demanded he apologize for how he behaved.)

Room Setup

Physical arrangements at the meeting site can reduce or increase conflict. To reduce conflict, place the audience in the largest area looking one way. Do not put the board or administration facing them at a table, but place the board on one side at a 45-degree angle to the audience so members can see the audience and the screen for the overhead projector directly facing the audience. Board members also can sit within the audience.

Administrators can be on the opposite side of the front of the room to run the projector or the video camera. A videotape should be made for the board to review later if there are questions or to allow an absent member to view the hearing. The tape also can be used for delayed broadcast.

Be sure to announce the purpose of the taping to those attending. A running camera carries a side benefit of reducing emotional outbursts.

Finally, place microphones for speakers toward the front of the main aisles. Having an individual stand apart from a band of supporters in a visible place will calm things down as well.

Ground Rules

My best experience in potentially explosive meeting situations has been to place the rules of the hearing on a overhead projector a half hour before the meeting and leave them displayed until the meeting starts.

A message we used recently at a meeting on proposed boundary changes said: "Welcome. Thank you for coming. Speakers please sign in--3 minutes maximum. Purpose: Board and administration listen and clearly understand suggestions on boundary recommendations. Important to keep emotion low and respect high to keep communication clear and flowing."

A handout at the door, "Guidelines for Speakers," helps everyone understand the ground rules. It should list expectations for the speaker and explain how someone who does not want to speak can submit written comments or leave a voice-mail message at the district office.

The administrator who opens the meeting should briefly review the ground rules.

Presentation Format

Set your strategy on how presentations will be structured. If the group is small, allowing someone to talk from his or her seat would be appropriate. As the group gets larger, however, hearing the speaker becomes a problem. The best method may be to ask speakers to move to a microphone.

Imposing a time limit on each speaker is fair to the audience. This allows all speakers to be heard in the time allotted and limits the harm a highly charged speaker can do to the control of the meeting. Allow individuals or a group to use the overhead for their presentation.

Finally, set the order of presentations for the meeting. An administrator or board member should welcome attendees, state the purpose of the meeting, review the ground rules and timelines, and state how the information gathered will be used. This overview should be followed by comments and presentations from the audience. The final presentation should be a summary by an administrator or board member of purpose, timelines, and what will be done with the information gathered.

Question Format

Board members and administrators should ask the speaker to clarify a statement if it was unclear. If the purpose is to communicate clearly, then clarification questions are valuable. The audience will have questions. While you can ask for questions to be submitted to the board in writing, this procedure, in my experience, often fosters distrust and feelings of being controlled among audience members.

The question process enables everyone to realize that citizens themselves differ over what should be done on a given issue. This clearly benefits the board. No board member or administrator could make the point more cogently than two parents on opposing sides, one of whom says, "I bought a new house and the board should move the old residents out of the school so my daughter can go to the school we can see," and the other parent who says, "I have lived here for 10 years and my children have rights to go to the same school their brothers and sisters went to, so don’t move me." People will walk away concluding the board is in a tough position and will not be able to satisfy everyone.

Response Format

The issue in responding is not so much about whether the board or administration will respond, but which questions they will address. Options include responding to none of the questions, responding to the "factual" questions, responding to all but the loaded questions, providing the rationale for a prior decision, or responding to all questions. The answer is best decided on the basis of the meeting’s purpose.

If the purpose of the meeting is to gather input in order to structure a proposal, then the best option may be to respond to just the factual questions and ask necessary clarifying questions. If the purpose is two-way dialogue with a community, then the loaded questions are best either left unanswered or deftly confronted by the moderator with the message, "The board does not plan to respond to that question tonight, but is here only to gather information."

This situation needs to be anticipated by the person who will respond so that the response appears natural, sincere, and from the respectful "high road." In a more subtle vein, the board and administration can appear to respond to each question by writing it down on a note pad. This shows that the input is valued and worthy of being recorded.

Follow-up Actions

Decide on the next steps before the meeting and put them in the final presentation by the board or administration. Also, prepare your next action in response to certain predictable events, such as a request for more information or a suggestion that one major assumption or criteria be eliminated, such as eliminating feeder schools and going to a concept of geographic circles.

Next, meet with the group of stakeholders who planned strategies for this meeting to critically analyze how the meeting went, what strategies should be repeated, and what needs to be changed for the next meeting.

Present to the group the schedule, location, and purpose of future meetings. Make clear which meetings are duplicates (in terms of purpose) of this one and which meetings are intended for board decisions.

Identify which meetings are public and which ones will permit speakers. Communicate this information multiple times in other formats, through newspapers, radio spots, and public access channels. A concluding overhead slide could thank people for attending and give future meeting information.

John Regan, Secondary Manager, South Washington County Schools, Cottage Grove, Minn.