Great meetings don’t just happen; they’re planned. We may imagine that the Constitutional Congress unfolded effortlessly. Surely, we believe, the legendary actors left the meeting with a brilliant document because they were sheer geniuses – or because fate or the hand of God had christened the day a bright beginning. The contentious issues debated required rigorous rules, determination to reach an agreement and even the dismissal of Quaker dissidents. Likewise, school board meetings that reach well-considered decisions follow a plan. To prepare for a school board meeting that gets decisions made, apply three essential tools: effective protocols, a working agenda and strong infomatics.
Meetings that get things done follow a code of parliamentary procedure. Such a fundamental component of professionalism goes without saying, but it bears repeating in the case of school boards because they open their meetings to the public. Some of those in attendance have never attended another school board meeting or worked in industries that require such rules.
School boards enjoy some flexibility in what parliamentary protocols they adopt. Robert’s Rules of Order (RROO) has a virtual monopoly in the field, but a school board can use it as a starting point for writing its own procedures. At the organizational meeting, held every few years, the school board can adopt or amend the textbook version of the procedures. Whatever format is used, the protocols must do three things:
- Establish the chairperson as the traffic cop of the meeting. Discussions and debates move in many directions during a meeting. In the moment, it is easy to get carried away and “keep going” down each new rabbit hole. Two hours later, the meeting will not have covered all the needed items.Rules of order keep the board chairperson in control of who speaks, when they speak and when it’s time to turn to other items. Under RROO, it is expected that the chair will state who has the floor, instruct an interrupter that someone else still has the floor, and cut off a discussion by identifying a concrete plan of further constructive steps to be taken on a point raised. The meeting returns to the agenda, business gets done and attendees know that the board respects their time.
- Allow all participants to be heard without derailing the meeting. Rules of order specify a place, a time and (optionally) a registration process for erstwhile speakers to have their say. Some school boards have speakers from the public sign up online before the meeting, stating their topic and agreeing to a standard time limit. Others set aside 15 minutes at the end of each meeting for members of the public who realize during the meeting that they wish to express their views on board business. Such a planned process for hearing speakers is crucial. It allows the board chair to keep directing discussion back to the agenda without shutting down public input. With no such process, the most impassioned person in the room takes over. With a tight policy that silences speakers entirely, a repressive tone kills the spirit of openness.
- Specify the stages through which an idea must proceed to become a policy. Some school boards get stuck in the “discuss” mode on every topic. The rules of order should include a road map that shows what else must happen for an idea to become a policy: A proposal becomes a succinct motion, which is seconded. Before it is approved through a vote of the board, the item may need to: go out to a committee for further research, be tabled until a better time or be sent to outside experts for their analysis.
With these procedures clearly understood, the chairperson can conclude an initial discussion with the simple question, “Do I hear a motion?” If nobody makes a motion, there is no action plan, and the discussion comes to a halt. With a motion on the table, the chairperson can indicate what next steps will be taken and when.
A working agenda
The agenda must do more than list topics of discussion. To drive decisions, it must make plain what action is to be taken on each item in this meeting: Does it need a final vote? Will the meeting hear the conclusions of an ad hoc committee or an outside consultant? The agenda must furthermore make it as easy as possible to read materials related to each item.
Crafting such a working agenda takes a vigilant board secretary with the right tools. The secretary should consult past meeting minutes to see what issues remain for follow-up. He or she should also provide links to the materials related to items slated for the meeting: reports, budgets, maps or articles. That way, the meeting will not waste time as experts repeat basic facts for the unprepared.
Board portal software gives the secretary just what he or she needs to get the job done. Board Docs gives school boards an archive where they can store past agendas and minutes – as well as all of their historical records. The secretary looking for agenda items can even search all those materials by keyword. He or she can even review video footage of past meetings, which is stored alongside minutes. Any item stored in the archive can be linked to the agenda, so finding and posting relevant readings, minutes and committee reports is easy.
The plan for a meeting that drives decision-making should include clear graphical representations of data. Concise visual displays equip each board member to vote with confidence. Graphics bring together numerous factors, showing their effects on the big picture. Great graphics even demonstrate how differing actions would affect progress toward the board’s strategic plan for the year.
Board portal software empowers the board to generate vivid renderings of data. In addition to supporting Excel-style graphs and charts, the best software can depict in succinct form how different actions bear on the board’s strategic plan. The secret is a goal-tracking feature.
With goal tracking, a dashboard appears whenever a board member accesses the board portal. On the dashboard is a barometer of progress-to-date on reaching the strategic objectives for the year. A board member can click on any of the goals to see what steps remain before that goal will be reached 100%. As the board considers various policies, it can do so knowledgeable of how much work – and what sorts of work – need to be done to reach prioritized goals. Proposals that would bring those goals closer to completion could then have priority over others.
These tools – rules of order, a working agenda and clear infomatics – pave the way for meetings that makes informed decisions. They can only set the stage, though. It is up to the board chairperson to stay alert in meetings, diverting digressions and steering items to the point of a final decision.