The phrase "bedlam rocks the school board" is a headline that appears occasionally when boards of education lose control of a meeting and lose public support in the process. The purpose of this chapter is to provide some tips for having more effective meetings that will serve several purposes:
- The public will be encouraged to place their confidence in a group that conducts the business of the school system according to legal requirements and appropriate rules of procedure.
- The board will learn to develop and adhere to an agenda that focuses on the core business of the board rather than issues that are of little consequence to the school system.
- The public will learn how they can have input at a board meeting without dominating and disrupting the meeting.
- Qualified people will be encouraged to serve on a board of education that values professionalism, order and efficiency over chaos and confusion.
- Superintendents and board members will learn to work together as a team to promote the goals of the system rather than individual agendas.
In the absence of public confidence in the fairness and efficiency of the board of education, there will be erosion of support for public schools. The United States Supreme Court described public schools as "a most vital civic institution for the preservation of a democratic system of government" and the primary instrument for transmitting "the values on which our society rests."
Public confidence will be high when:
- Board members show familiarity with and adherence to accepted rules of parliamentary procedure.
- The board chair conducts the meeting fairly and efficiently.
- Volatile issues are handled in a controlled way with adherence to the principles of order, equality, justice and fairness, rights of the minority, and the rights of the majority.
- Differences between board members and the superintendent are discussed until they are resolved in a way that best promotes the shared values of each entity.
Public confidence will be low when:
- Meetings are conducted that violate legislative decrees and the rules of procedure that have been adopted by the board of education.
- Board members stray from discussion of the immediately pending question, make improper and inappropriate motions, and use "parliamentary gimmicks" to unnecessarily delay and complicate the discussion.
- Board members or the superintendent bring surprise issues or information to the board meeting and call for action before there is adequate study regarding the problem area.
Planning the School Board Meeting
Effective meetings will not happen if they are simply thrown together without any thought about the order in which issues should be discussed, the amount of time that will be needed to adequately discuss an issue, the information that the board members will need to receive prior to the meeting, the likely role that the public may play when a particular issue is being considered, and the proper wording of motions or resolutions that are being considered by the board.
Preparing the agenda
The agenda is sometimes prepared during a work session that is held several days before the actual meeting where the motions to be considered are voted on. There are several benefits that come from having an informal work session:
- The board can use the work session to establish the items that will be placed on a formal agenda along with suggested guidelines for the amount of time that should be devoted to an issue.
- During the work session, decisions can be made to place items where there is unanimous agreement on a consent agenda.
- Informal discussion can be held that can help the board and the superintendent come to agreement on issues that may be controversial.
- If additional information is needed, the board can request that it be provided prior to any final vote on the issue.
- The board and superintendent can work together to craft the wording of a motion that will have the best chance of receiving a majority vote.
Georgia law makes no distinction between a meeting that is called a "work session" and any other meeting of the board of education. Thus all legal requirements that apply to any meeting of the board of education also apply to the work session. However, there is considerably more freedom in terms of procedural rules than you have during the regular meeting of the board. The agenda for the work session is often developed in a meeting between the superintendent and the board chair and/or vice chair. Some tips or best practices for the agenda development process include:
- Communicating the date and time the agenda is prepared to board members and other concerned individuals. Every effort should be made to keep this time consistent throughout the year. Agenda items should be submitted to those who are preparing the agenda by a date/time specified in board policy. The proposed agenda item should be submitted in writing to the appropriate person.
- Keeping a record of unfinished items from previous meetings. These items should be included on the agenda of the upcoming meetings. Some boards have a policy that policy changes must "lay on the table" for 30 days prior to their final adoption. These items should also be placed under the "action" agenda section.
- Adding to each agenda a section called "Approval of the agenda" where board members are given an opportunity, by majority vote of the members present, to add to or otherwise change the agenda. Board members should be careful to keep from surprising everyone with last minute additions to the agenda. However, there are some situations where it is appropriate and necessary to amend the agenda. This is permitted under Georgia law. O.C.G.A. § 50-14-1(e)(1) which states "Prior to any meeting, the agency holding such meeting shall make available an agenda of all matters expected to come before the agency at such meeting. Failure to include on the agenda an item which becomes necessary shall not preclude considering and acting upon such item." The key phrase is "which becomes necessary." Board members should adhere to the philosophy that surprises during board meetings tend to undermine the relationship between board members and often place the superintendent in a position where they are not prepared to make recommendations.
- Developing the agenda and support materials, usually a responsibility of the superintendent, a suggested three to five days prior to the board meeting. Board members need to study the materials and be prepared for the discussion.
Preparing for Public Input
Meetings of the board of education are governed by O.C.G.A. § 50-14-1 stating, "Except as otherwise provided by law, all meetings shall be open to the public." The law further requires that, "Visual and sound recording during open meetings shall be permitted." The specific procedures for public input and participation at such meetings will be established by local board policy. An examination of board policies regarding public input reveals a wide range of practices. Each board should carefully consider the issue of whether it wants a very restrictive policy limiting public input or a less restrictive policy that allows for a wide range of public input or some combination that falls between these extremes. It is important to remember that the meeting is a gathering of the board of education that the public has a right to attend rather than an open public meeting where everyone is given the same rights as board members regarding participation. Extremely flexible rules could lead to a situation where the public takes over a meeting. Extremely restrictive rules could be so inflexible that the public might have little or no input. The following guidelines are taken from several policies that have been adopted by local boards of education. Your board should examine these guidelines and determine the best ones for your system. Some requirements include the following:
- During regular board meetings, a specific portion of the meeting agenda, not to exceed 30 minutes, shall be set aside to allow comments by members of the public. (Boards may choose to set aside more or less than this time and include a provision that the time can be extended by vote of the board. If there is a very volatile issue, more time may be required or the board may choose to have an open, public forum on the topic with a different set of guidelines.)
- Individuals desiring to address the board must sign up prior to the meeting and indicate the subject that they wish to address to the board. (Some boards adopt a highly restrictive policy requiring that individuals wishing to address the board sign up several days before the meeting and be placed on the agenda. Other boards allow members to sign up the night of the meeting. The board chair and superintendent should examine the list of those who sign up, review the topics and assign the amount of time that each speaker will have. There are some boards that allow the public to speak on any item on the agenda at an appropriate time. Allowing someone to speak without knowing their topic is risky and should be discouraged.)
- Complaints about personnel will not be heard. Individuals are expected to contact the superintendent, members of the administrative staff or local administrators to secure a satisfactory solution to any concern. Attempts should be made to resolve all concerns at the lowest level possible. (This provision will also protect board members from receiving information that might disqualify them from sitting on a tribunal when these issues come before the board.)
- Individuals should be as brief as possible, limiting their comments to no more than five minutes, unless the board votes to grant an extension of time. (The board may choose to establish a different time limit at each session, depending on the number of people who desire to speak. Groups should be encouraged to select a spokesperson to represent the group rather than having excessive repetition on a subject.)
- Board members will not respond to comments or questions posed by citizens during their presentation but will take any comments or questions under advisement. (While this guideline should not totally prohibit responses, it is not a good idea to get into extended discussions with the public until the board and Superintendent have had a chance to gather necessary information.)
- The board chair is responsible for enforcing the procedures that have been adopted. (Board chairs often ask for "unanimous consent" to change any procedures that have been adopted by the board. This allows for flexibility when circumstances call for a different approach than the one specified in board procedures. Legal requirements should be adhered to at all times, but the board should have some flexibility on procedural issues.)
- The board chair is responsible for clearly communicating to the public attending the meeting what the board's policy is on public input, that the board cannot vote on comments made to the board during input sessions or that the board won't make comments about the presentations. (Board chairs often establish a time limit for all speakers if the sign up sheet has grown to an unmanageable number. It is also a good idea for the board chair to let the audience participant know what will be done with his or her information.)
An effective board meeting, from the perspective of the public, is one that allows a fair and reasonable opportunity for citizens to address the board on matters that concern them. In some extreme cases, boards have allowed the public to essentially take over the meeting. In other cases, boards have adopted such restrictive policies that the public becomes discouraged and will not even attend meetings. As each board establishes policies for public input, both of these extremes should be avoided. Teamwork is still the key. Just as the board and the Superintendent must work together as a team, the board must learn to work with the public, especially when issues arise that are explosive and arouse the public.
Dealing With Controversy
Many of the most significant problems faced by society come to the doorstep of the Board of Education. The board and Superintendent must often face issues that divide a community, as they seek to improve student achievement and provide the best possible environment for students. There are few things that provoke citizens more than issues regarding their children. The following suggestions are designed to help the board deal with conflict:
- Regardless of the quality of a school board's working relationship, it is a certainty that the board will split on some controversial issues. Board members must have a fair process in place to resolve controversial issues when they arise. If a vote is not unanimous, board members must be committed to accepting the will of the majority. Continuing to fight on when the battle is lost often leads to even greater conflict over issues that are not even related to the issue that caused the conflict.
- The issue should be researched and every board member's vote should be cast on the basis of the best information available. As an important member of the team, the superintendent must make sure that all board members receive the same information. There are few things that aggravate a conflict more than a situation where some members of the team get information that other members do not have. This information should be given in a timely manner so that board members have adequate time to study the material and to request additional information that may be needed.
- A board should use their web site to communicate important information to the public. Include a frequently asked questions section that can be used to provide information that the public needs to know. This will not eliminate controversy, but it will provide the same information to everyone.
- During the discussion of very controversial issues, board members should address their comments to the Chair rather than individual board members. Do not make personal attacks on other board members or question the motives of other board members.
- When speaking to the press or to the public, do not represent yourself as the spokesperson for the board or the school system unless you have been given that responsibility by the board.
Taking Action in the Board Meeting
When the board reaches the section on the agenda which calls for formal action by the board, a procedure should be in place for handling a motion. Robert's Rules of Order has a good system for handling a motion, but boards may choose to be less formal or to adopt their own procedure. Whatever the case, everyone needs to understand the process and follow the agreed upon procedure. The following pattern of organization will help guide the group through a formal process of handling a motion:
- A member makes a motion
Only members of the board of education can make and/or second motions. The superintendent may recommend the wording of motions and can include that wording in the board packet. However, a board member must make the motion. The motion should be placed in writing and handed to the board chair, especially if the wording is lengthy and needs to be very specific. There are times when a board member introduces a poorly worded motion. The chair can request a change in the wording or some clarification that might make it more acceptable to the board. The chair can handle this informally prior to the formal process of stating the question. Once the chair formally states the motion, it belongs to the board and can only be withdrawn or modified by the board. Unless the bylaws specify otherwise, the board chair can make and second motions and participate in the discussion.
- A member seconds the motion
A second merely implies that the board member wishes to hear the motion discussed. You are not obligated to support or vote for a motion simply because you second a motion. If no one seconds the motion, the chair says, "The motion fails for lack of a second." Some items that do not require a second include nominations, a call for a division of the assembly, a parliamentary inquiry, a point of information, a point of order, and a recommendation of a committee comprised of two or more board members.
- The chair states the question
The chair is responsible for formally placing a motion before the board by stating the motion. It is important that the chair state the precise wording of the motion before debate begins. Vague language or unclear aspects of the main motion should be cleared up before the motion is formally presented to the group for discussion.
- The members discuss the motion
It is customary to allow the person who makes the motion to speak first if he/she so desires. If members get off the subject, the chair needs to remind them to confine their remarks to the immediately pending question that is the motion on the floor. Much time is wasted when members stray from the issue at hand, and it is the responsibility of the chair to keep this from happening. During the course of discussion, amendments to the main motion may be introduced. If a member of the board proposes an amendment to the main motion and it is seconded, the amendment becomes the immediately pending question and must be resolved prior to continuing debate on the main motion.
Ending debate on the motion is frequently and incorrectly done when someone just blurts out "I call the question" and the chair stops all debate. After someone says, "I call the question" the chair should say "Is there any objection to calling the question?" If there is no objection, proceed to vote on the immediately pending question. If there is objection, the chair should treat the call for the question as a motion to end debate. If you go by Robert's Rules of Order the motion to "call the question" is not debatable and requires a two-thirds vote to pass.
- The members vote
Before calling for the vote, the chair should repeat the motion so that everyone understands the issue that is being decided. Common practice is to vote by show of hands so that everyone can clearly see how each person voted. In determining whether a motion passes or fails, it is important that the board be aware of any legal requirements regarding the counting of votes. In Georgia, the law is very specific on this issue. O.C.G.A. § 20-2-57 says "The votes of a majority of the members present shall be necessary for the transaction of any business or discharge of any duties of the local board of education, provided there is a quorum present." If you have seven members on the board and five are present and two vote "yes", one votes "no" and one "abstains" the motion does not pass because of the requirement in Georgia law that it takes a majority of the members present for a motion to pass. This is different than the requirement in Robert's Rules of Order that defines a majority vote as more than half of those present and voting excluding abstentions.
One of the most frequently misunderstood issues is how to treat an abstention. There is one instance where board members in Georgia are required to abstain from voting. O.C.G.A. § 20-2-58.1 says "No local board of education shall employ or promote any person who is a member of the immediate family (spouse, child, sibling, or parent) of any board member unless a public, recorded vote is taken on such employment or promotion as a separate matter from any other personnel matter. Any board member whose immediate family is being considered shall not vote on such employment." This requirement to abstain can have an impact on the outcome of a vote since Georgia law requires a majority of the "members present" to vote "yes" in order for a motion to pass. Some board members may choose to abstain from voting for a variety of other reasons. Robert's Rules of Order states "although it is the duty of every member who has an opinion on a question to express it by his vote, he can abstain, since he cannot be compelled to vote." Thus, a person has a procedural right to abstain, but that abstention could have the same effect as a vote against the motion.
- Announcing the vote
The chair should always announce the outcome of the vote, giving the number who voted for and against the motion. Any member who wishes to change their vote can do so before the vote is announced. Once the vote is announced, a member must obtain the consent of the board to change their vote.
SOME PROCEDURAL ISSUES
Reconsidering or Rescinding a Motion
Sometimes a board discovers information that may result in the need to reconsider or rescind an action previously taken. The purpose of a motion to reconsider is to "permit correction if hasty, ill advised or erroneous action, or to take into account added information or a changed situation that has developed since the taking of a vote." A motion to reconsider allows a board, anytime prior to the adjournment of the meeting, to correct action that the board realizes should not have been taken during the meeting. A motion to reconsider can be made only by a member who voted with the prevailing side.
According to accepted parliamentary procedure, if the board of education desires to rescind an action taken at a previous meeting, it can do so by making a motion to rescind. Unlike the motion to reconsider, any member can make a motion to rescind.
Delaying Consideration of a Motion
Items that are placed on the agenda may be discussed to a point where members realize that there is insufficient time to fully consider the matter. Also, matters of greater urgency may arise which make it necessary to temporarily dispose of a pending question. Thus, a member may make a motion to lay the issue on the table. This motion can be applied to any main motion, is not debatable, cannot be amended and requires a majority vote. Since the motion to table cannot be debated or amended, the chair calls for a vote immediately. Once a motion has been laid on the table, it can be taken up again at any time a majority of the members desire to consider the issue again. Any member has the right to move that an issue be taken from the table.
Another way to delay consideration of an issue is to postpone indefinitely or to postpone to a definite time. These are both debatable motions which allow the board the opportunity to discuss the merits of delaying consideration of an issue until a specific time or indefinitely. Both motions require a majority vote for adoption and can be applied to any pending question.
The superintendent is normally the ex-officio secretary to the board and is required to keep and maintain the board minutes. The board's nominee as secretary may also perform these functions. Great care must be taken in the recording and preparation of board minutes because they constitute the official and legal record of board actions. School boards must be absolutely certain that their actions have been precisely recorded. Minutes may be amended so as to speak the truth, but a board may not change its official action through amendment to the minutes. Legal requirements for board minutes are outlined in O.C.G.A. § 50-14-1 (e)(2): A summary of the subjects acted on and those members present at a meeting of any agency shall be written and made available to the public for inspection within two business days of the adjournment of a meeting. The regular minutes of the meeting of any agency shall be promptly recorded and such records shall be open to public inspection once approved as official by the agency, but in no case later than immediately following its next regular meeting. Such minutes shall, as a minimum, include the names of the members present at the meeting, a description of each motion or other proposal made, the identity of the persons making and seconding the motion or other proposal, and a record of all votes. The name of each person voting for or against a proposal shall be recorded. It shall be presumed that the action taken was approved by each person in attendance unless the minutes reflect the name of the person voting against the proposal or abstaining. Minutes of executive sessions shall also be recorded but shall not be open to the public. The executive session minutes must specify each "issue" discussed by the board in executive session. "In the case of executive sessions where matters subject to the attorney-client privilege are discussed, the fact that an attorney-client discussion occurred and its subject shall be identified, but the substance of the discussion need not be recorded and shall not be identified in the minutes. Such minutes shall be kept and preserved for in camera inspection by an appropriate court should a dispute arise as to the propriety of any executive session.
The Open Meetings Act places a greater burden on the chairs of governing bodies to monitor compliance with the Act since the presiding officer of each governing body covered by the act must execute an affidavit when that body closes any portion of the meeting to the public. If the board's policy so provides, each board member may be required to sign the affidavit. The names of board members voting for closure must be included in the minutes. The affidavit must state that the subject matter of the closed meeting "was devoted to matters within the exceptions provided by law and identifying the specific relevant exception." This affidavit must be filed with the minutes of any meeting in which an executive session is held.
To improve board meetings and determine whether particular strategies will be effective, the board must define what makes an effective meeting:
- From the perspective of the superintendent, the meeting of the board should be one where everyone works together to achieve a common goal. There should be no surprises, unexpected issues or major conflicts between board members. Every board member should be satisfied with the information that has been provided by the staff. There should be free and open debate on the issues. Board members should feel free to request a delay or to request additional information before making a decision. The press should understand what was done and be provided the necessary information to communicate with the public. Staff members should be given the opportunity, when appropriate, to answer questions that the board may have.
- From the perspective of the board member, each member should receive an information packet several days in advance of the meeting to be able to study the agenda and other materials. An opportunity to communicate with the superintendent prior to the meeting should be provided. A process should be in place that would allow board members to add items to the agenda. The superintendent and staff should have the wording of motions prepared and included in the packet, but should be willing to consider amendments proposed by board members. The board chair should have an understanding of basic parliamentary procedure and school law. The meeting should start on time and end when the agenda is completed. Every action should reflect the goals and mission of the district. Those goals should be posted in the boardroom as a reminder to everyone.
- From the perspective of the public, an agenda should be posted prior to the meeting. It should be posted on the system's web site. The minutes of the meeting should be made available to the public, as the law requires. An opportunity should be provided for public input at the meetings. Board members should be available by phone or email to respond to the concerns of citizens. The meeting should focus on the different points of view that people hold on the issues. Debate should be thorough but considerate and courteous. The press should be welcome at meetings and given an opportunity to question board members at an appropriate time “ possibly at the end of the meeting. The budget should be balanced. Teachers should be recognized and rewarded. Students should be honored when appropriate, and the entire team of administrators and staff should show the public that they are working together as a unit.