Donovan Group Resources

Communication Support for a Contentious School Board Meeting

Among all that is great about public schools is that they are governed by boards made up of community members who live alongside the families of the schools they serve.

In many communities, the school board is the governing body closest to their constituents. While it may be very rare for most people to come into direct contact with their U.S. senator, they have much more access to their local school board members.

At the same time, we know from history that some of the most contentious issues of the day can play out in school board rooms. Public schools can be a microcosm of the larger society, including the political divisions our country is currently experiencing.

Taking this together, we should not be surprised when school board meetings get messy. The question we have received from school and district leaders over the last month is: What should we do if we have protests at our school board meetings?

In addition to creating a one-pager that outlines some actions your board and school leadership team can take to ensure community members have opportunities to voice their concerns and meaningfully address the board, we would like to share some thoughts.

1) Free speech is critical and must be defended

As we all know, free speech and the ability of community members to address their elected board members is critical to the success of any democratic government. It is especially important for schools. Board members, please remember that education is always emotional because your work is about children. Who doesn’t want great things for their kids?

Moreover, we must recognize that people communicate differently. While board members should never feel they are being threatened, it is helpful to recognize that some people will raise their voice to make a point. It’s important not to match emotion with emotion.

Finally, board members should recognize that when a large group of people turn up at a board meeting, they do so because there is trust in the system. Consider this: If constituents did not believe in the system of school board governance, would they show up at meetings?

Reasonable people can disagree, and so long as constituents are following board rules, the meeting is safe and it can proceed, having a large number of attendees exercising their right to speak to the board is a very good thing.

2) Safety is always the priority

While we want constituents to be free to voice their opinions in accordance with board rules, board members must recognize they have an obligation to keep those in attendance—including fellow board members, staff  and others—safe. The best way to do this is to ensure that meeting rules are followed, that order is maintained and that clarity is provided to all participants about how the meeting will proceed.

We have provided some additional information about what can be done before and during the meeting in our one-pager.

3) The meeting must go on

In so many ways, the word “protest” can have a negative connotation. We must recognize that protest is simply a way for constituents to share their thoughts and communicate. Protests that are peaceful and that occur within the rules set by the board are perfectly appropriate. However, where protests can turn negative is when safety is threatened, when meeting rules are broken and when the meeting cannot continue.

Board members have a responsibility to ensure the work of the board is done in an open and transparent manner. A board meeting should never be taken over by a protest group.

4) Focus on students, mission and vision

For those board members and administrators who face ongoing protests, there can be a situation in which a disproportionate amount of attention is paid to the protest. Board members and administrators alike should seek to continually remind themselves why they are engaged in this work. Their work should always center on students, their needs and the mission and vision of the school district.

In this way, it is sometimes helpful for board members and administrators to speak to the why behind certain decisions. The fact is that people will disagree about the methods by which goals are met, but the mission and vision of the district—what the district seeks to do for the children it serves—is generally not something most will disagree with.

At the end of the day, we must all remember that what makes school district governance so difficult is that we are working to meet the needs of children. The success of our children is something on which we can all agree.

5) Keep the conversation going

Despite how difficult protests can be for board members and administrators alike, such efforts can be seen as an opening to more fully engage community members in the future. In this way, district leaders should continue looking for ways to bring community members together around their shared values for our children. Continue sharpening your communication plan, consider a communications audit or a community survey and look for opportunities to further the conversation.

As always, we would love to hear from you. Feel free to leave comments or reach out to us by phone or email.

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