BOARD-SAVVY SUPERINTENDENT

Dealing With a Bully in Public Session

By Richard E. Mayer/School Administrator, August 2015

The school board meeting is off to its usual start: roll call, pledge of allegiance and announcements. The agenda then calls for public comment — a period when anyone in the audience can fill out a card and come forward when called by the board president to talk for up to three minutes on any issue not on the agenda. Today, there is just one card.

The president reads the name on the card: “Betty Burlmore.” Everyone knows from past experience that Burlmore tends to engage in nasty tirades. She begins: “I come before you to ask why you waste the taxpayers’ money on a top-heavy administration. Look at everyone sitting up there. Why do we need so many assistant superintendents? Can’t the superintendent handle the job?”

She asks the board to get rid of the assistant superintendent for special education and let the assistant superintendent for instruction handle her duties.

One board member has had enough. He interrupts to educate Burlmore about the role of administration. “May I just point out, Betty, that our district has a much lower administrator ratio than other districts our size. According to statistics from the state school board association, we should have two additional administrators. Our current administrative staff is working very hard and doing a fine job for us but they are stretched thin already,” he says.

The explanation only makes Burlmore angrier. “I can see we have a board that wishes to continue wasting the taxpayers’ money on unneeded administrators. Reducing central-office administrators is just the start. We also should fire some principals. Can’t two schools share one principal?”

“Betty, your time is up,” the board president quietly chimes in.

Betty’s reply is sharp and loud. “Oh no it’s not. I was interrupted, and I should have a chance to respond. That makes me think of lots of other ways to cut the administrative fat.”


Listening Time
 

This episode has the potential of spinning out of control. By challenging the speaker, the board member not only provoked the speaker to make even more outrageous comments, but also prolonged the meeting, increased the chances that the board president will lose control of the meeting and violated the board’s procedural rules.

What the board member said was factually correct and relevant, but the public comment portion is a time for the board to listen to community members. Board members have plenty of chances to express their views. When board members take on the role of the truth police during public comment periods to correct factual errors, they neglect their role as respectful listeners.

The superintendent also has a role in preventing poor boardsmanship. The superintendent could exercise a little emergency First Aid at the instant the board member started challenging the speaker by saying, “I will be glad to make that information available on our district website.” Or the superintendent may need a more direct comment: “I’m sorry to interrupt, but the board can’t discuss this issue because it is not on the agenda.”
  

Exercising Restraint

Dealing with a bully during public board meetings can be unpleasant, such as when a speaker uses a public meeting to make inflammatory statements. However, rather than engaging in conversation with the speaker, board members should be reminded they will get a chance to talk later. The only exception to using such restraint is when the speaker slanders an employee or endangers the privacy of a child or the like. In this case, the superintendent or board president must interrupt and get the speaker back on track.

A long-term solution is to ensure the board has an adopted procedure and in-service training on the conduct of board meetings. Through board workshops or individual discussions with board members, the superintendent can help the board develop a tradition of exercising respectful tones at meetings.

Of course, the superintendent and cabinet also can model this at meetings. An unlisted part of the superintendent’s job description is to help prevent members from behaving badly at board meetings.

 

Richard Mayer, a school board member in the Goleta Union School District in Goleta, Calif., is professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He adapted this column from his book, How Not to Be a Terrible School Board Member (Corwin Press). E-mail: mayer@psych.ucsb.edu