Communicating during the board meeting
July 28, 2009
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Is the lack of attendance at your board meeting a source of concern to you? Do you wish more people knew what the board of directors does? Do you, or your staff, dread going to another dull board meeting?
Your school board meetings should serve at least two purposes:
- To accomplish your district, ESD or community college business; and
- To communicate to staff, students and the community.
Your meetings probably accomplish the first purpose easily. Agenda items are presented, discussed and approved or returned for more work.
But what about the second purpose?
- Do your meetings contribute to your community’s understanding and appreciation of your organization?
- Do your meetings offer recognition to adults and students?
- Do your meetings enable you to interact with staff and the community?
If you can unhesitatingly say "Yes!" to these three questions, your meetings probably do communicate. If you have any doubt, ask yourself this question:
Do our meetings contribute to our community and staff’s understanding of the district?
Your meetings can be a gold mine of information about your organization for staff and the community but you’ve got to get people to the meetings and make it easy for them to get the information.
Also, people usually hang onto first impressions. And these first impressions can contribute to the attitude they form about you. The minute an employee, Site Council member, upset parent, vendor, or taxpayer organization representative enters your board room they form an impression. Here’s what you can do to make that impression positive:
- Make the board room as comfortable for visitors as possible. Have enough chairs, good ventilation and attractive surroundings.
- Make sure visitors to your board meetings feel welcome and that their involvement is appreciated.
- Either board members, administrators, volunteers or students should greet people at the door, provide them an agenda and ask them to fill out "comment cards" (142k ) if they wish to address the school board. Completed comment cards should be taken to the board president.
Provide all visitors with clear information about how and when they can comment on agenda items. Let them know that all complaints against employees should be forwarded to the appropriate administrators and not addressed in a public meeting.
- Prior to the meeting, board members and staff should take time to mingle with guests to put them at ease. The formal nature of some board meetings can be intimidating.
- Staff should make every effort to see that constituents’ questions are answered, either at the meeting or through follow-up correspondence.
- Arrange the agenda so visitors can speak early in the meeting, particularly if it appears that it will be a long meeting. However, let visitors know that they are welcome to stay for the whole meeting.
- Arrange the chairs in a way that encourages the natural flow of conversation, perhaps in a circle, as opposed to the board being on a raised platform with the audience seated in chairs in front of them.
- Develop a "Welcome to a Meeting of Your School Board" brochure which explains how the meeting is operated, who the board members are, how people can address the board, and why the board goes into closed sessions.
- Have a sign-up sheet for people who wish to address the board. This will make it easier for you to write thank you notes and for the staff to follow-up on questions or concerns.
- Begin the board meeting with a bit of good news about students, staff members or programs.
- Become aware of and eliminate personal habits - such as tapping a pencil, jangling change in your pocket or endlessly rustling your papers - that might be distracting to speakers.
- Maintain eye contact with speakers.
- Take notes. It tells speakers that you are interested in what they are saying. However, don’t try to write down everything that is said and forget to pay attention and ask follow-up questions.
- When you take a break, mingle with the audience - especially those you don’t know.
- Don’t get into a debate with someone in the audience.
- Be courteous and attentive when citizens are speaking or staff members are presenting a report. Even though you probably can read and listen at the same time, don’t.
- Develop cohesiveness on the board by using first names when addressing or referring to other board members. Make it clear to observers that board members know each other and respect each other’s opinions.
- Use your freedom of speech to ask questions so you can cast an informed, intelligent vote.
If you are taking a position that is contrary to that of the majority of the board and/or administration, be prepared to clearly articulate your reasons. Have background materials so you can substantiate your opinion.
- When issues are brought to the board for the first time by citizens, before you act, be sure to give the staff a chance to research the impact of the proposals on the budget, time lines and policies already established. Explain why you are not acting immediately, but schedule a time for the issue to come back for consideration, and hold the staff accountable for reporting back to you.
- If you are unprepared, don’t fake it. If others are obviously unprepared but are debating the issues anyhow, try to cut them off as diplomatically as possible - perhaps by tabling the item.
- Don’t attack personalities. Attack problems.
- Although your personal situation will affect your thinking, don’t limit your consideration of, or questions regarding, an issue to how it will impact your family or circle of acquaintances. Ask questions a community member would ask. Always ask "What is best for students?"
- Be open in expressing your beliefs. Not knowing how you will react from issue to issue makes it very difficult for the superintendent to formulate recommendations that are likely to meet with your approval. Board members owe voters and their colleagues the opportunity to know what they stand for.
- Keep comments professional, not personal.
- If you wish to have a decision reconsidered by the board, propose the action openly, not through the back door.
- Recognize that the best solution for conflict is time. Take the time to allow people to work through the process. Don’t make hurried decisions.
- Make it easy for people to hear you by using a microphone if the room is large, and by speaking clearly and distinctly. Ask people addressing you to do the same.
- If you have appointed committees to provide recommendations to you on various topics, have the committee chair provide an oral overview of the findings at a board meeting. This will give the committee formal recognition for its work, allow board members to hear firsthand what the committee wants emphasized and to ask questions.
- Has your board set goals? Use the board meetings as a forum for periodic progress reports.
Request staff members to present the bulk of their reports in writing, supplementing them with oral or visual presentations. Generally, keep the length of staff reports to 15 minutes or less.
- Encourage the staff to use audio-visual aids for reports and presentations but be sure the audience can see them, too.
- If you can’t get out to schools and departments, why not bring them to your meetings? Depending on how many programs you have, you could schedule one presentation each month. The 10- to 15-minute presentation could include a brief written and oral overview from the principal or program head and reports from students. Don’t forget the work that’s being done by your business services, food service, transportation and maintenance and operations departments.
- Establish a program whereby student achievements are systematically recognized. Be sure you establish (and announce) criteria, publicize the program internally, and evaluate nominations objectively. Make sure parents, staff and the recognized students are invited to attend. You can provide shirts, plaques, pens, certificates or trophies.
- Develop a program wherein various students, programs and staff members are in the spotlight. Participation could include students leading the flag salute, art displays, reports from the principal/program head, introduction of staff and parent volunteers, or a combination.
- Establish a time on your agenda for the superintendent or president to report on student and staff activities and achievements.
- Take good care of the people who are appearing before you. Be sure they have a lectern for their notes (as well as a place to hang onto!), a microphone and your full attention. If you doodle, roll your eyes, yawn, read or shuffle papers, you give the impression that you’re not interested in what the person has to say.
- Have a question/suggestion box at the entrance to the board meeting room. Sometimes people are reluctant to ask a question in front of everyone.
- Consider having a "spotlight" section at the beginning of the meeting to highlight and meet staff and students who win district, regional or state honors and contests. Give them a "Certificate of Congratulations," signed by each board member.
- If you have newcomers at the meeting, ask your board president to briefly explain about the consent agenda and how the public comment portion will be run.
- If it appears that a meeting will last longer than one hour, consider having an informal coffee break during which you can chat with community and staff visitors.
- As a board, be consistent in following your board policy for handling comments from the audience and receiving information. A tightening of the rules or a refusal to listen to comments if the comments get ugly won’t sit well with the audience.
- If you have to go into closed session, do it at the end of the meeting.
- Share information freely. Take advantage of opportunities provided during the meeting to share information learned at a conference, your impressions from a site visitation or useful information you receive.
- Use your board meetings to systematically recognize staff and commend and honor volunteers.
- Establish a calendar of board presentations a year in advance, if possible. Every other meeting, for instance, could include awards and recognitions, while alternate meetings could include reports on various programs.
Adapted from OSBA’s PR In Action, a communication subscription service for Oregon schools.