The game of chess follows one golden rule: “You have to have a plan.” Like exquisitely orchestrated symphonic harmonies or baseball shutouts, checkmates don’t “just happen.” If meetings required us only to talk to other people in a room, we could handle that on the fly. They require so much more, though: The Board of Education sets the high-level vision for an entire state’s preK-12 public education program. Each meeting must include all of the needed information (but no more), invite public input without surrendering the reins, and make final decisions in the face of conflicting views. “The plan” for a meeting that achieves all of these goals must include diligent preparation, disciplined execution, and conscientious follow-up.
In the meeting itself, time is of the essence: Boards of Education make lots of important decisions. Activities that are better taken care of between meetings should be scheduled in advance so they don’t steal precious minutes or hours from the meeting. Doing these things before the meeting will help the board focus on debates and votes when the time comes to convene as a body:
- Publish Materials on the Business of the Meeting. Give board members and interested members of the public at least a week before the meeting to read the agenda, minutes, and committee reports. With meeting time so limited, require voting members to read the minutes and committee reports in advance so they need not be read during the meeting.
- Publicize Rules of Engagement. Laws require all debates to be held in public, which can lead to disruptions that derail meetings. The board should establish expectations in two documents posted prominently before and during the meeting: (1) Audience Etiquette and (2) Participation Protocols. Determine and announce the rules you establish to keep the meeting focused: You may limit the number of speakers allowed from any one organization or set a time cap on each topic. To draft such rules, think about which past meetings have gone awry and what rules could have prevented those mishaps.
- Solicit Community Engagement in Other Forums. The public can, and should, actively contribute to the deliberation around important education policies. Top boards don’t just tolerate, but actually invite, needed voices to attend designated discussions of upcoming issues. Some states have launched listening tours, going from district to district to get input from teachers, parents, and students. (In one such tour, Kansas BOE members held 238 focus groups.) Online discussion threads or surveys also create openness and transparency. Highlighting, say, a 24-hour time window for such contributions can incentivize participation, feeling like an “event” in its own right.
- Sustain Positive Media Relations. Take the lead in asserting the message on the internet from the board’s point of view. Software can generate various social media posts from the language in a source document. Designate one board member to monitor internet activity relating to board business; a monthly or quarterly summary could be included alongside committee reports. Don’t ignore traditional journalists: Share the board packet with the press. Let them know what recording and broadcasting is allowed. Establish and follow a policy for press communications. Some boards, for instance, allow only the chair to state the official position of the board.
Disciplined Meeting Execution
All that preparation makes light work of the meeting itself. At the meeting, boards should observe the following guidelines:
- The chair should deliberately set a tone of respectfulness.
- Hold just one vote on a “consent agenda.” Since voting members have had time to read the minutes and committee reports before the meeting, save time with one quick vote for the entire slate.
- Follow to the letter the rules stated in your published Participation Protocols and Audience Etiquette guidelines. If each speaker has up to five minutes to speak, it is one person’s job to keep a stopwatch and enforce the rule for every speaker. Consistently following clearly articulated rules prevents the appearance of favoritism.
- Call closed sessions confidently and judiciously. The law allows some matters to be discussed behind closed doors, for reasons that are to be announced. A board need not apologize for calling a closed session, especially when it has done so much else to include public voices throughout the process. Common topics for closed sessions include:
- Discussing a public official’s performance – e.g., the superintendent’s review
- Strategizing on pending legislation
- Planning for public safety and security
- Considering criminal charges against an individual
After a closed session, the board must attest that it has conducted business only on matters exempted from the state’s open meeting law. It’s a good idea to invite the board’s attorney to be present in closed session. She will know exactly what your particular state law requires.
5. Appoint a reference librarian. BOEs are accountable to numerous state laws. A board portal can make those statutes, as well as an archive of past minutes and votes, accessible with a keystroke. Give one board member the duty of finding any such needed information when it comes to be needed in the course of a meeting. Then everyone doesn’t need to starts searching the archive on their laptops.
Two actions right after a meeting cement the transparency that the public deserves (and the law requires):
- Posting video footage. Some board portal software seamlessly integrates embedded video on the public website.
- Crafting the board’s own message announcing results of the meeting. Technology also allows boards to write their version of meeting outcomes, posting the same language to multiple social media outlets.
A Board of Education that applies all of these guidelines will earn the trust and respect that characterize excellent educational environments. It goes beyond the call of duty to encourage community engagement, not needing to compensate for any negligence by hosting an open meeting that screams: “No boundaries!” Such meetings make time for all of the business at hand – and only the business at hand.