Keeping Board Meetings Civil and Productive
By PEGGY J. WOZNIAK
/School Administrator, October 2019
CIVILITY IN THE board room, always important for maintaining a business-like atmosphere, has a direct connection to student achievement. Research by David E. Lee and D.W. Eadens reported in their article “The Problem: Low-Achieving Districts and Low-Performing Boards,” published in 2014 in the International Journal of Education Policy and Leadership, found that “[m]eetings in low-performing districts were less orderly, focused less time on student achievement and had board members that were less respectful of and attentive to the community.”
As a new superintendent in central California, I worked with the school board on an ambitious school construction project. When the building proposal was presented at a board meeting, several members of the public challenged the board’s ability to manage such a large project.
Some public comments were personally insulting to individual board members, who in turn responded defensively to the community members making the remarks. Other board members were displeased with how their fellow board members had reacted to the public and expressed their displeasure through negative body language.
The result was an overall lack of civility at an important board meeting and lots of hurt feelings among board members who had been friends.
A Facilitated Process
I knew that type of behavior at board meetings, as well as interactions with the public, had to be addressed before the working relationship among board members and the public image of the district suffered further. No protocols were in place in this district to deal with conflict nor were there explicit standards of behavior expected of board members. At my suggestion, the five-member board agreed to schedule a workshop to address behavior at board meetings.
I facilitated the workshop a few weeks later and began by clarifying shared values and beliefs and revisiting our vision for the public schools we governed. The members quickly agreed they shared the same values and beliefs and supported the established vision for the district. They were unanimous in their agreement that the focus of the district should be on ensuring all students achieve their potential.
We discussed how board members need to work together so they always act in the best interest of the students and in a manner to achieve the vision. The California School Boards Association’s Professional Governance Standards for School Boards identifies an effective trustee as one who “acts with dignity and understands the implications of demeanor and behavior.” At our board workshop, we reviewed these standards and discussed how demeanor and behavior make a difference.
The board agreed to establish norms for behavior at meetings. Several board members recommended they go a step further and develop explicit norms for dealing with conflict.
Some of the norms agreed upon included:
» “We will treat each other respectfully.”
» “We will be supportive rather than judgmental.”
» “We will listen attentively without preparing responses.”
» “We will be open to the ideas of others.”
» “When we have a difference of opinion, we will debate the facts of the situation and avoid personalities.”
Once consensus was reached on all of the norms, the board officially adopted them at the next school board meeting. They were posted at every meeting and included at the beginning of every meeting agenda available to the public.
The norms quickly became a part of the district’s culture and defined how business was conducted. At a subsequent board meeting, a member of the public again challenged the board on a decision. This time, the board followed its established norms, listening attentively and without bias. The result was a meeting that remained civil and productive and focused on the best interest of our students.
a retired superintendent, is an adjunct professor at Keene State College in Keene, N.H.