BOARD-SAVVY SUPERINTENDENT

Showing Respect to Your Meeting Visitors

By Brad Hughes/School Administrator, September 2015

 

Most superintendents with tenure beyond initial contracts have seen board of education meetings reminiscent of a scene from the original “Frankenstein” movie — the villagers assembled, armed with torches and pitchforks, waiting for the opportunity to destroy the monster.

Over my career, I’ve attended plenty of these board meetings, usually involving a highly emotional subject — closing a school, altering attendance boundaries or firing a popular employee. Ironically, the first school board meeting I attended was in my hometown, where I was a student advocating for the board to grant tenure for our band director.

One observation from such meetings is that superintendents and board members who handle the passion of the moment well are those who already were prepared to welcome their guests just as they would in their homes. It’s no stretch to apply this analogy to a school board meeting. The family is there — the board, superintendent and staff. They all understand the rules of how meetings are conducted, what is permissible, what is frowned upon and what is unacceptable.

Not so for many guests who show up at the board’s “house,” often for the first time. Some don’t know there are rules. Others don’t care. But in fairness to all, rules of the house need to be routinely explained and, when necessary, reasonably enforced.

Proactive superintendents and their boards can be ready for such meetings by having house rules in place — and shared — before the villagers arrive.
 

Audience Protocol

In most states, Open Meetings Acts guarantee a place for the public at sessions of government bodies. However, in Kentucky and other places, nothing in the law gives citizens a right to speak. Observe and listen, yes. Talk and interact, no. And people often don’t know this.

So the onus is on the district leadership to determine its rules for public participation, especially for visitors making speeches or posing questions. Some, but not all, districts set time limits on participants. A few boards allow exchanges with the audience throughout the meeting.

Some districts employ a meeting protocol flyer. It’s a simple pamphlet that explains meeting functions, such as how action is taken, if and when comments are accepted, and limitations. Copies can be placed on seats for the audience or next to the sign-in sheet for those wishing to speak. Districts requiring advance notice of intent to speak should make this document available ahead of time, too.

At the very least, a handout should provide notice that certain subjects — talking about specific students or school personnel by name — are off limits. To a point, superintendents are the exception. Questions, even polite criticism, go with the job. But board chairs should be ready to step in and halt harangues amounting to little more than a public tongue lashing. And remember that all speakers — those who support you and those who oppose you — should have the same opportunities and face the same restrictions when speaking.

Just as with guests in your home, visitors should expect to adhere to the rules. If they don’t like comment limitations, they can run for office. But even a taxpaying, student-enrolling “guest” can be welcomed only so far. Removing an angry person from a meeting should be a last resort. It probably will become a news story. The best advice in such cases is to be as lenient and evenhanded as possible. And on those rare occasions when that doesn’t get the job done, politely show the person to the door.
 

Emotional Restraint

High emotions can involve superintendents and board members as well as visitors. It’s easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment on a point of passion about children and their futures.

Districts with clearly defined, regularly explained rules for public engagement set an expectation for meeting visitors. Leaders who fairly manage participation send an appropriate message: You are welcome in our house, but rules apply to all.

 

Brad Hughes is the director of member support/communications services for the Kentucky School Boards Association. E-mail: brad.hughes@ksba.org. Twitter: @ksbanews