Regular board meetings are not public meetings. They are meetings held in public much like meetings conducted by legislature. School board meetings are an opportunity for patrons to see school government in action, but the public has no legal right to participate, even though many boards have chosen to offer a time for public input.
Some boards see the board meeting as a vehicle to inform the public. As a result they often give explanations, make comments, ask questions so the public to hear the answer, and utilize other strategies to make sure the public is informed. However, since only a small fraction of patrons usually attend board meetings, these official meetings are not a good venue for informing a majority of the public or getting a sense of what they want. Since media accounts of these meetings usually focus on meeting highlights, the media are also not a comprehensive source of public information about school issues.
To inform the public, get consensus on specific items, gather input on school direction, etc., it is best to have a meeting where there is no official agenda and when a effort is made to advertise its purpose and invite the public. Such "Town Meetings" are a useful tool to accomplish these objectives. Properly planned and conducted these meetings can be tremendous benefit to the board and to patrons.
On the other hand if these Town Meetings are poorly planned and/or conducted, these meetings can degenerate into negativism, fomenting political agendas, shouting matches, etc. and become very divisive. A format and process that has been successful in increasing the success of these meetings is suggested below:
- Should held be in a large arena with all board members present.
- Should be held at least twice a year.
- Should be "rotated" to a different location each meeting.
- Should be facilitated by the board president or by a school advisory committee member, never by the superintendent. Regardless of who presides, the person presiding must be skilled in working with groups, keeping the meeting on track, and deflecting antagonism.
- Should be in a "social" atmosphere (e.g. get the PTA to provide coffee, punch, cookies, etc).
- The board should have clear objectives about what it wants to accomplish (e.g. inform about an issue, get consensus on a vision for the district, discuss construction project, etc.).
- The board should advertise their objectives and repeat them at the beginning of the session.
- The facilitator should stick to the agenda. If a patron raises a question about an issue not on the agenda, have a district representative standing by to get his/her name, contact information and his concern or complaint. Promise that the appropriate person will get back to the questioner within 24 hours with an answer or a timeline on when they will get an answer. Then go on with the agenda. (Keep in mind that this meeting is not a gripe session for the public. There are administrators who handle those. This meeting is to inform, get consensus, etc.)
- Keep the meeting to no more than 90 minutes.
- Provide an email address, phone number etc. where additional input can be given.