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Chairman's Gavel: Effective management of board time

Chairman's Gavel: Effective management of board time

By Susan Salter | AASB Director of Leadership Development

Ever feel like your board is working harder than ever but making little real progress? This can be particularly frustrating when, as board president, you are working to be respectful of the members’ and staff time. Here’s quiz to help you spot areas that may contribute to that sense of running in place.

Does your board ... 

  • Create goals without a plan for reaching them?
  • Have incomplete, inaccurate or unusable information about issues you need to address?
  • Often have discussions that ramble?
  • Have unnecessary meetings or meetings without agendas?
  • Wait for latecomers before starting meetings?
  • Hold long discussions only to “resolve” the issue by tabling it?
  • Fail to follow parliamentary procedure?
  • Often have members trying to talk over each other?
  • Fail to leave the meetings with a clear understanding of what was agreed to?
  • Have members that restate their position (or others’ positions) several times during a discussion? Or, have members that feel the need to give their opinion on every issue?
  • Seem always to be dealing with a new or recurring “crisis”?
If this sounds like your board, it may be time to establish clear expectations for how your meetings will run.

As part of the state’s new School Board Governance Improvement Act, each local board will be required to develop a code of conduct in the coming months (once the state Board of Education approves a model code). While your code of conduct isn’t the place to address the issues above, the discussion of your code it would a great time to also nail down how you want your meetings to run.

Once you get the state board’s model, consider planning a board retreat or work session to address both the code of conduct and board meetings. Use the time to get group agreement for some basic rules such as:

  • All members will be expected to arrive on time.
  • All meetings will start on time.
  • Members will refrain from interrupting each other or the superintendent.
  • Members may indicate that they concur with statements made by other board members, but will refrain from stating their position in detail on each issue if it has already been voiced.
  • Members will do their homework prior to the meeting so that meeting time may be used to discuss the pending issue rather than asking questions.
  • The board president will restate agreements at the end of discussions to ensure everyone has a clear understanding and will ask the members if they support the agreement.

Note that these are only suggestions. It is important you and your members come up with your own list of expectations for board behavior and that you adopt only the ones you all agree to.

As the president, also understand that some people will continue to restate their position until others acknowledge they hear it. Often, they are even aware that they are doing this. Observe your members at your next meeting. If one member frequently restates his position during discussions, try this strategy: After that member states his position the first time (and before you call on the next person wanting to speak), restate his position by saying something like, “So, Mr. Smith, what I hear you saying is …” This will reassure the member he was heard, give him a chance to clarify if you have misunderstood and keep the discussion from bogging down in repetition.

If, on the other hand, your board seems to always run from crisis to crisis, it is important to analyze what is keeping the board in that state. Possible culprits include:

  • The board isn’t given ample time to digest major issues because of deadlines. Consider asking the superintendent to include in the board packet a list of all deadlines that will require some sort of board action in the next three months. Then use the list to prioritize what comes before the board each month.
  • Unexpected maintenance or facilities problems. Ask the superintendent to develop lists of short- and long-term preventive maintenance recommendations along with cost estimates. Hold a work session to review and prioritize them.
  • A steady stream of student discipline problems. Ask the superintendent to analyze school climate data, review the data with the board and develop a plan for addressing the deeper issues are creating or exacerbating behavior problems.

Tread carefully when dealing with an Alabama Supreme Court ruling on serial meetings. In a June ruling, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled a local school board did not violate the Open Meetings Act when its members met in small groups on an issue pending before the board. Such meetings were dubbed serial meetings because they were held back to back with the superintendent and board president present in each meeting and the remaining six board members attending in pairs. The ruling, which by a 5-4 vote found the meetings did not violate the OMA, hinged on the fact that at no time was a quorum of the board present. Thus, even though the board members discussed something likely to come before the board at a later date, the court ruled the serial meetings where not official board meetings subject to the OMA.

Despite the ruling, AASB is urging boards to use an abundance of caution when considering holding such meetings. The high court’s decision was close, and it is worth noting that two of the justices will no longer be part of the court should the issue be challenged again. It appears likely that the courts will continue to define what is acceptable in future rulings.

In the court of public opinion, this practice usually raises significant public concern about whether the board is acting in secret. It is guaranteed to generate negative publicity and that impacts public confidence.

However, these cautions do not mean board members should avoid having discussions with each other beyond the board table. It is acceptable – and often advisable – for you, as an individual board member, to ask a fellow member about his or her views on an issue before the board. This can be an important tool for gathering information, gaining new perspectives and insuring you fully understand the pros and cons of a proposal before the board meets to publicly discuss it. But there is a difference between one member gathering information for his own education or advocating for a position and a deliberate effort by the board as a whole to discuss an issue outside the public sight.

Originally published in September 2012.

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