Board-Savvy Superintendent

Care and Feeding of the First-Time Visitor

by BRAD HUGHES

Imagine you were attending a school board meeting for the first time and heard the following exchange, perhaps even made partly in jest from one board member to another: “I don’t understand it either, but as long as the employees are paying for it, I’m not going to be too worried about it.”


The colleague responds: “I’ll second it because I have to go to work pretty soon.”

Brad HughesBrad Hughes


Or how about the veteran journalist who was at a board meeting, listening to a presentation about a special education issue. Upon reviewing his notes afterward, it appeared the speaker was talking about a program whose acronym would be “EIEIO.”

Alphabet Soup
Superintendents play a whole host of roles in their job, not the least being that of “information shepherd” at their board of education meetings. Sometimes, the superintendent does most of the talking. At other times, a string of administrators and teachers deliver reports to the board.

While it’s critical that everyone seated at the head table has a sufficient grasp of agenda topics to make decisions, what about those folks in the audience? Isn’t there a responsibility to the public in a public meeting? Who better to ensure this than the superintendent?

I remember attending a board meeting where the superintendent was detailing activities to raise student achievement. A series of PowerPoint slides aided the superintendent’s exultation on the impact that “CIPs” were having at various grade levels. Nowhere in his comments or on the projection screen was there anything to enlighten lay people about those wonderful CIPs.

Now, after 16 years of helping school leaders communicate with the public, I feel I’m a fairly well-informed guest at a school board meeting. If I had a dumb look on my face about those marvelous CIPs, what might have been going through the mind of parents or other taxpayers sitting in the audience?

Would you invite a guest into your house and periodically lapse in and out of Spanish just because you are fluent in that language if you didn’t know whether your visitor could join in?

When educators expect that all within earshot surely must understand, the resulting “inside baseball” presentation leaves the average member of the visiting public with little chance of grasping the hits, runs and errors of the education game.

And then consider why most folks are in the audience in the first place. These people have taken time off work, hired babysitters or given up part of their afternoon or evening because they feel an issue before the board is sufficiently important. They are making an investment of time and a commitment of attention. They should expect nothing less from their elected officials and the professional educators than an extra effort to make sure attendees leave the meeting understanding the issue better than when they arrived, regardless of whether they agree with the decision.

Reaching Out
A useful tool used in some districts is something I call the board meeting protocol flyer. This is a simple brochure, or even a one-page sheet, explaining important points about how the board meeting is conducted. It generally answers these points:

•  Are there first and second readings of certain items? 

•  Is there a specific place on the agenda where the public is allowed to address the school board? Should speakers be aware of any prohibitions on their comments, such as personal attacks or use of student identifying information? 

•  How are closed sessions handled, including the return to open meeting for any action?

Superintendents who create these flyers do themselves and their boards a huge favor by eliminating some of the questions first-time board meeting visitors may have.

A key is that once you’ve set the rules via this flyer, make sure you stick to them. Consider, for example, a school board that sets a three-minute limit on speakers and spells that out in the flyer. If the superintendent sees that the board chair is cutting off critics at the three-minute mark, but allowing more positive speakers to ramble on, that’s a practice that can destroy good intentions and planning.

Another option is to have a staff member attending the meeting assigned to get contact information from speakers. There may be benefit from a follow-up call or e-mail. Or perhaps some speakers can be added to the superintendent’s key communicators’ network. Either way, having the ability to contact someone after the meeting may depend on what information you capture before everyone heads home for the night.

The school board meeting is a district’s public forum to the community. Superintendents (and their boards) who don’t act to enhance public comprehension of matters discussed therein not only miss an opportunity to educate, but they may well fuel the fires of frustration among those who are also giving up their time for that meeting.

Brad Hughes is director of member support services for the Kentucky School Boards Association in Frankfort, Ky. E-mail: brad.hughes@ksba.org