For anybody who takes minutes at a school board meeting, the best advice is: “Keep your eye on the ball!” Digressions, details, and strong opinions are certain to arise. The minute-taker is not there to write out every last word like an old-school stenographer “taking a letter” in shorthand. He is there to keep a summary of actions taken. At most, he will succinctly summarize discussions; strict adherence to Robert’s Rules of Order would have him avoid recording anything at all about discussions. By following these guidelines, anyone can create state-of-the-art minutes.
Key: Allot your Time Wisely
Taking minutes, it may seem, requires a lot of work after the meeting, some fast-as-possible note-taking during the meeting, and no work at all before the meeting. The best board secretaries know that the reverse is true: with extensive preparation prior to the meeting, the meeting itself becomes a simple quest for a pre-determined list of facts that must be recorded in the meeting. After the meeting? Whereas this phase was once a frantic attempt to separate wheat from chaff in the excessive account of details taken in the meeting, it now takes little more than typing. The process works if you take the following steps during each stage of the game.
Before the Meeting
Conspicuously mark up the agenda; with those visuals, you’ll look for exactly what you need to record. Then, take these steps before the meeting:
- Get speakers to sign up a week before the agenda is to be released. Pre-registration goes a long way to prevent the rants that so often derail school board meetings. The pre-registration forms can be kept online, where two key points should be prominently displayed: the due date for the form and the time limit for the oration. It should ask each speaker the topic of her remarks. If you do not create the agenda, work in collaboration with the person who does; you will both need to reference the list of speakers and topics.
- Read the agenda as soon as it is released. You will need the lead time in case you need to ask questions in advance. In that case, you can ask the chairperson for clarification. Check the agenda for:
- Any closed sessions that are planned. Add on the agenda a note-to-self: “Confirm compliance and insert state law.” That note will prompt you to add the exact wording of the state statute that prescribes when and how closed sessions may be conducted. (If you routinely take the minutes, it’s a good idea to have this verbiage saved on your computer.)
- Whether the agenda’s timing and content satisfy the requirements for open meeting laws – e.g., was the agenda made available 72 hours in advance of the meeting? Were the place and time in an appropriate facility announced at that time? If so, insert a note-to-self: “Confirm compliance and insert state law.” You can’t yet confirm anything, as someone could try to sell things during the meeting or otherwise violate open meeting requirements.
- Whether or not the facility has ramps or other accommodations for handicapped access. Again, assuming the facility is suitable, insert a note-to-self: “Confirm compliance and insert ADA language.” In the meeting, you can check for any obstacles that may appear outside the building that day – or a broken ramp, etc.
- From the agenda, type up a separate sheet with tools to guide your record-keeping:
- A list of the names of school board members expected to attend
- A list of invited guests and pre-registered speakers, with correct spellings
- Additional pages for recording deliberations made on any agenda item slated for discussion. (A minimalist will need only enough room to write in the outcome of any deliberations.) For foolproof transparency, type in “See added page” next to those agenda items.
- A blank sheet with the title “Motions”
- Another blank sheet headed by the word: “Hand-Outs Distributed” and “Collected”
You’ll thank yourself later for generating these tools. In the meeting, you will not have to write out by hand the names of these attendees or guess at spellings. You can just put a checkmark by their names if they actually do attend. Nor will you try to squeeze your summary of extensive discussions and details of motions into a cramped space.
- Mark up your agenda. The following added markings will guide your eye during the meeting:
- Underline the place of the meeting (to remember when you type up the minutes)
- By the time for the meeting to start, write in “Actual Time” so you can indicate exactly when the meeting was called to order.
- Write “Quorum” near the list of attendees. It will remind you to indicate if enough voting members were present to constitute a quorum.
- Record the names of any board members, invited guests, or citizen speakers who sent regrets. (You’ll have to write these in to the agenda.)
- In the margin of the consent agenda section, write in “Minutes and Committee Reports Approved”
- For agenda items that are not at the discussion stage, write in “Action Taken”
- Where the agenda reads “adjournment,” write in “Exact Time”
During the Meeting
The heavy lifting is now behind you. In the meeting, an easy scan of the notes you’ve inserted into the agenda – and the supplementary documents that you’ve created – makes the meeting itself a laser-edged search for the exact things you’ll need for your minutes, minus all the distractions. Bold words and underlines – plus the attached pages – direct you to be on the lookout for these points in the meeting:
- Start time
- Who attended
- Who sent regrets
- Who was absent
- Whether a quorum was present
- Whether the consent agenda and past minutes got a vote to approve
- Whether or not the meeting met the requirements for handicapped access, open meeting laws, and closed session rules
- On the motions sheet, the exact wording of each motion, who made it, who seconded it, and whether it passed (with a tally of the vote count). Note that you may need to confirm the wording with the speaker(s) immediately after the meeting. Don’t leave it for email.
- On the additional information sheet, salient points raised in support of, and opposition to, each item discussed
- At the end of the meeting, the list of all handouts distributed at the meeting and whether or not they were collected prior to adjourning
- Exact time of adjournment
After the Meeting
If this stage once caused angst and consumed lots of time, you’ll be surprised how easy it has become. Following the agenda that you marked up (and the additional sheets that are now filled in with notes on discussions, motions made, etc.), your job is simple:
From the marked-up agenda, you can easily see the meeting venue, the exact start time, board members in attendance, invited guests in attendance, speakers from the public in attendance, who sent regrets, who was absent, whether a quorum was present, and whether or not the minutes of the last meeting and the committee reports were approved in the vote on the consent agenda, what action was taken on each agenda item, and whether the meeting complied with ADA rules, open meeting laws, and closed session regulations. You will need to insert the exact phrasing from the related rules when you record compliance.
From the supplementary pages that you created, you can see your notes on the content of the scheduled discussions on agenda items and the points raised by speakers from the public. While you wrote these notes with an eye to conciseness, you may need to tighten the wording a bit more to make them succinct accounts of points raised. If they’re not recorded in the third-person voice, convert them now.
To keep a perfectly clear paper trail, attach to the minutes any reports brought in to the meeting (but not attached in advance to the agenda) – anything that informed discussions or votes. The paper trail will also benefit from your listing the title of each outside document handed out in hard copy and whether or not it was collected before the meeting was adjourned.
Taking these steps makes it natural to stay focused on what you actually need during the din of the meeting. Your minutes will be right on target with far less stress than before. Putting in time before the meeting saves time, angst, and errors later. Better minutes with less aggravation will result.