Board-Savvy Superintendent

Public Comment Sessions: In Control and On Time

by Nicholas D. Caruso Jr.

As your school board meeting is about to start, you are surprised to see nearly 100 people packing the boardroom. It appears everyone is there because of a rumor floating about the school district. They all want to speak during your public comment period. You already have a long agenda. What are you going to do to get through this?

While the board, and especially the board chair, is more responsible for dealing with the issue of managing the meeting, some carefully placed advice from the superintendent can lead to a much more orderly proceeding.

One of the first rules that every school board member learns is: The board meeting is a meeting held in public, not a public meeting.

Time Limitations
While each state has its own interpretation of that rule, the main thing to recognize is that while the public has the right to observe the school board doing its job, they do not have the right to participate except where the board feels it is appropriate and gives them the privilege.

The purpose of a board meeting is to complete the agenda and make decisions. It should be understood that while the public may have an opportunity to address the board at a specific time during the agenda, action will not be taken that evening.

Boards sometimes allow only comments on matters related to agenda items, while others have no such restrictions. A time limit is critical (three minutes per speaker is the norm) and must be strictly enforced. As I tell board chairs, the first time you let someone speak for four minutes, you now have a four-minute rule.

So what can a superintendent do to ensure that public comment does not overrun the meeting and keep the real business of the board from getting accomplished?

Deferrals, Referrals
Experienced superintendents pay close attention during public comment periods. If they are sitting next to the chair, a careful whisper might remind the chair that the speaker is entering into a personnel matter or a student discipline issue, which would be more appropriately handled by administration.

I have seen superintendents make note when a parent raises such an issue by remarking to the parent, “I’ll be in touch with you tomorrow” or “I would ask you to contact the principal tomorrow morning.” Helping the questioner understand the chain of command is important especially when there’s an expectation the board will resolve the issue that night, and you know it is much more complicated than that.

Setting some ground rules and preparing ahead of time with the board chair can go a long way in resolving potential issues during public comment. Work out some simple codes when the chair can defer to you or to handle it as the chair by referring the matter to the appropriate staff person.

It is also proper (in most states) to limit the time that public comment is allowed during a meeting. Some school districts set aside the first 15 minutes for public input. If a large number of people are in attendance, those school boards often allow for one 15-minute extension by a two-thirds vote of the board — but only one extension. If more time is needed, it may be appropriate for the board to schedule a separate public hearing to deal with the specific issue. That also gives the administration time to put together information relevant to the issue.

I have seen superintendents defuse an issue, when it was known ahead of time, by making a statement before the public comment period to clarify the facts and what will be done to rectify the issue. Then the board will be able to hear public comment related to real facts rather than rumor or innuendo.

Defusing Tensions
Often, policies allow for a public hearing where the purpose of the meeting is to allow discussion on a particular issue. These typically are requested by petition and may be requested by a group that is hostile to the school board or the particular issue.

I recall one group, which had a limited personal agenda and had it out for the board and superintendent, called for such hearing on a highly contentious issue. Members of this group also called the local TV stations and promised a dramatic encounter.

It could have resulted in a public bloodbath for the board, but the superintendent (with the board chair’s approval — and thanks), arranged to break up the meeting into small groups with at least one board member and an administrator in every room to facilitate discussion rather than invective. The superintendent believed more people would be comfortable speaking in small groups involving board members and administrators. In the end, the board and administration did obtain some really good information that eventually led toward policy changes. Most significantly, the opposition group did not control the agenda — the board did.

While the board of education ultimately is responsible for the outcomes during public comment, the superintendent can go a long way toward helping those sessions stay on target and, as importantly, stay on time.

Nick Caruso is senior staff associate for field services with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education in Wethersfield, Conn. E-mail: ncaruso@cabe.org