School Board Survival: Navigating Turbulent and Contentious Public Meetings

By Jennifer Andrus

School Board Survival: Navigating Turbulent and Contentious Public Meetings

1.12.2022

By Jennifer Andrus

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Concerns over infection rates, remote learning and mask mandates are some of the issues taking center stage at school board meetings both in New York State and across the country. The politically divided electorate is focusing its energy and sometimes its rage on local elected officials.

This week, the New York State Bar Association held a program among its members and members of the public to discuss strategies to turn down the volume of these emotional meetings, find new ways to communicate and serve as role models for students.

“We must ensure that our disagreements are expressed in a civil and constructive manner. We must insist that we practice what we preach during school board meetings” said Jay Worona, the deputy executive director of the New York State School Boards Association. He said all adults in the community are responsible for teaching students how to be active and productive citizens.

Key Strategies for Success

Worona laid out key strategies for board members and others to use to keep meetings both open and productive. While New York State’s Opens Meetings law does not require a public comment period, Worona advises districts to have one. Boards can limit time allotment and topics for public comment prior to the meeting. Worona also advises that the president of the board read ground rules for conduct at the start of the meeting including consequences for unruly behavior. He warns against removing disruptive members of the public from the meeting, calling it a “nuclear option,”  and advises boards to have local law enforcement ready at meetings for both safety and deterrence.

David Alpert, communications director for the School Boards Association, shared several de-escalation techniques. Alpert advises that board members not feed into anger and emotion or attempt to counter the argument but clarify any misinformation after a person is finished speaking. Alpert’s main point is to seek to understand and make sure the community member feels heard.

Citizen Participation

Following de-escalation training, Alpert focused on three approaches to creating more citizen participation, which can diffuse anger and build community when dealing with critical issues.

“The goal here is to bring people into the decision-making process so they don’t feel upset or aggrieved and show up at your public board meeting and be disruptive,” he said.

Strategies include looking for mutual gains and building consensus through community conversations  early in the process. Alpert advises against holding a public hearing in which organized groups can dominate the discussion.

Lastly, Alpert focused on the strategy of informed consent. It acknowledges the shared values in the community and seeks out a fair resolution. Alpert says using this method, even those who oppose the final decision understand the process and feel they are a valued part of arriving at the decision making.

View from the Trenches

The workshop wrapped up with a from the trenches perspective provided by Kevin McGowan, superintendent of the Brighton School District outside Rochester. McGowan shared that he prepares his board members for each meeting by reminding them of their roles, telling them which groups may be coming and keeping an eye on both social media and traditional media sources.

McGowan and local police design safety and evacuation plans for the board meeting. He counsels  board members to employ signals to move to executive session or adjourn the meeting if they feel uncomfortable or in danger. He agreed with other presenters that it’s important to be clear and compassionate when countering false information.

“We are public leaders in our community, looked to for guidance by many people. Making sure that we’re not allowing the lie to spread and become a fact because it’s been said so many times,” he said. McGowan went on to say that the Brighton School Board meetings have a growing audience of students who are tuning in and learning from adults in the community.

“We can disagree without being disagreeable. It is OK to be passionate about our perspective even when our perspectives are very, very different. Our kids are watching,” he said.

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