The spirit of democracy leaves many feeling entitled to unlimited self-expression during school board meetings, and intergenerational aspirations tap the deepest sinews of hope and fear. It is entirely possible to prevent chaos in meetings, harnessing the enthusiasm of the community for the benefit of students. The solution is simple: Create, publicize and enforce a detailed code of etiquette for school board meetings.
Ask for What You Want
After a particularly exacerbating display of tempers, labels and hyperbole, a school board chair may ask himself: “Did I even have any ground rules that I could have enforced in the moment?” In a surprising number of cases, the answer is “no.”
Consider: If you preferred that guests not track dirt into your house, but you didn’t ask them to remove their shoes, you would be left to fester with judgment when friends dragged mud and twigs across your Persian carpet. Without stating a single expectation, the leader of a rules-free meeting may fume with the rhetorical question: “Why don’t they know what is normal behavior – the way humans know to behave?” All too often, the rules are left unformed and unstated, as if other people could read your mind – even though visitors represent a wide range of cultural backgrounds and personal histories.
An increasingly informal public culture resists etiquette as if it represented the shackles of a puritanical preacher or a schoolyard bully. Especially if the board wants to appear friendly, it may regard all imposition of structure as de facto persecution. Nothing could be further from the truth: Stating standards sets a tone of professionalism. Do you want civility, respect and self-restraint? Ask for it.
Set the Rules
If you don’t know where to start, a constructive first step is simply to adopt the protocols of Robert’s Rules of Order. That act alone imposes considerable direction to potentially rambling meetings. Topics for discussion become clear moments in a decision-making process of a specified duration. One person at a time clearly “has the floor.” The chairman stays in the rightful role of traffic controller throughout the meeting.
To those rules, add rules of etiquette that broadcast your answers to the following questions:
What can board members and the public expect from the agenda?
Open-meeting laws will specify the due date for distributing the agenda. A great chairperson models order and courtesy by attaching to the agenda a concise compilation of committee reports to be voted on in a single action, links to attached readings and specific directives on the status of each agenda item: Is it up for a final vote? Was it previously tabled so outside experts could be consulted? Is it in an early phase of taking the temperature of community reactions? To slap the verb “discuss” before each agenda item begs the question: “Why bother?”
Do board members really have to prepare for the meeting?
The answer must always be inflexible and affirmative. When recruiting new board members, the chair should talk at length with each candidate to clarify that attendance at meetings is not enough for this position of uncommon trust. Each member is expected to be punctual, prepared and polite. Each must also read the entire board packet and come prepared with any questions or comments. A meeting cannot devolve into a public reading of material that everyone had the opportunity to study in advance.
How will we stave off digressions and interruptions?
Ground rules can simply forbid interruptions. Guidelines can ensure that comments are brief, focused and relevant. Determine which rules you want to govern board members and public attendees.
- Both groups should see the same posting when they enter the meeting room: 1. Cell phones must be turned off and out of sight. 2. Private conversations must move to another room. 3. No one may send texts or check emails during the meeting.
- The public should be reminded of frequently posted guidelines to keep their comments relevant and brief. Best practices include the following:
- Many districts require speakers to open by announcing whether they are speaking as an individual or on behalf of a group.
- Coeur d’Alene (ID) lets erstwhile speakers sign up immediately before the meeting. Tulsa (OK) Public Schools requires requests to make public comments to be submitted in writing seven days before a meeting, with the reason for the comment spelled out. On that form, each prospective Tulsa speaker signs an agreement to honor the time constraints and relevancy requirements of the district.
- Coeur d’Alene gives each speaker up to two minutes to speak. Tulsa gives them five minutes on agenda items and another five minutes for issues not specified on the agenda. Other districts require all comments to address a current agenda item.
- Some districts require commenters to provide enough printed copies of materials for each board member to receive one.
- It’s a good idea to specify that each speaker may address only one point at a time.
- As preventive medicine, Tulsa states that complaints should be resolved at the lowest possible administrative level, with board-level airing of grievances a rare exception.
- Many districts specify that the chairperson may cut off any speaker whose remarks are deemed digressive.
- Board members should know when and how they are to communicate. Etiquette coach Candace Smith recommends a set procedure for board members to enter the group conversation. Decide if eager contributors must raise their hand, take a number or follow some other protocol. She further recommends specifying that no board members can jump in without being recognized by the board chairman.
- For both groups, some disruptive behavior might not be anticipated by these highly specific points of posted etiquette (spitting? drawing caricatures? throwing paper airplanes?). A more general admonition can cover any gaps. Bledsoe, TN, states on its school board website: “Rude behavior is not tolerated.” Tulsa Public Schools assures attendees that all will receive the same high level of respect: “The individual dignity of Board members, District employees, students, and members of the public must be respected by all speakers. Board members, employees, students, or members of the public will not be subjected to verbal abuse.”
Clarify and honor what attendees can expect after the meeting.
When and where will minutes be posted? Will they include video footage of the meeting? (Doing so, free of charge, creates a spirit of transparency. It conveys good will more effectively than having a “no-rules, nice-guy” style of meeting!)
Communicate! Communicate! Communicate!
Imagine how smoothly rough moments in a meeting could be resolved if you’d pre-posted your district’s standards of etiquette! As someone cuts off another speaker, the ground is already set for stopping the interrupter without appearing to pick favorites. When a commenter strays from the topic, you can easily remind her of the one-point-at-a-time rule. The etiquette guidelines should appear prominently on the district’s public-facing website, in a printed code of conduct and on the wall at meetings. Be sure that they are translated into the native languages of all in the district.
Hardly an affectation, a code of etiquette for school board meetings is essential to orderly proceedings. With such clear guidelines widely publicized, everyone attending your meetings knows that without a personal lecture that respect and professionalism will prevail. They also know that you will not waste their time with an aimless or aborted meeting. While you may expect to encounter resistance to the rules, you will find that you get gratitude – and results.