A Parliamentary Procedure Primer

Adapted from “Parliamentary Procedure for the Novice” by Dee Molinare

As experienced board members know, and new board members soon learn if they don’t know it already, the work of the board requires effective school board meetings, and effective meetings require an agreed-upon set of rules to facilitate the orderly transaction of the business of an assembly, to maintain decorum, to ascertain the will of the majority, and to preserve the rights of the minority.

Hissing and Spitting?

Parliamentary procedure is a set of rules for the conduct of meetings, a long-tested method of conducting public business. The first known rules of how to run a meeting, in the late-1500s, determined that “one subject should be discussed at a time.” Early parliamentarians could not have anticipated Zoom meetings, yet this rule not only makes sense today, but it is also vital to how meetings are run.

Later rules included “A member speaking, and his speech, seeming impertinent, and there being much hissing and spitting, it was conceived for a Rule, that Mr. Speaker may stay impertinent speeches” and “He that digresseth from the Matter to fall upon the Person ought to be suppressed by the Speaker … No reviling or nipping words must be used,” to maintain decorum and to limit debate to the merits of the question. We credit early parliamentarians for the lack of nipping, hissing, and spitting during board meetings today.

Conduct at Illinois school board meetings must follow federal and state laws — such as the Open Meetings Act — which cover boards of education. Conduct should adhere to local board policies for conducting meetings, such as IASB sample PRESS Policy 2:220, School Board Meeting Procedure, which recommends Robert’s Rules of Order as a guide.

Developing Decorum

Robert’s Rules of Order is the most commonly used reference guide for parliamentary procedure for school boards in Illinois — and indeed for organizations everywhere. “Robert’s Rules” is, for many, synonymous with parliamentary procedure. It is a guide to implementation of parliamentary procedure, and it has been guarding against impertinence and protecting decorum since the late-1800s. U.S. Army General Henry Martyn Robert was a civil engineer who grew frustrated by poorly-run meetings and determined to do fix them. He compiled notes into the Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies, which was first published in 1876 and updated thereafter to great response and demand. We now use the 12th Edition of Robert’s Rules of Order.

Parliamentary procedure is the commonly accepted way for people to come together, present and discuss courses of action, and make decisions. It is a democratic process for holding effective meetings and making decisions in a fair and consistent manner, allowing all voices to be heard and making the best use of everyone’s time. Parliamentary procedure is meant to ensure every member is satisfied by the manner in which a decision is made, even if they are not satisfied by the outcome.

Going Through the Motions

The first and fundamental lesson for new school board members participating in meetings is understanding motions. The value of discussion via motion becomes increasingly evident the more meetings you attend. Until then, here’s an explainer to get you started.

In parliamentary procedure, discussion is taken via motions. A motion is a proposal that is put before a meeting for discussion and a decision. Ultimately, each motion is voted on, and if the question is passed, the decision is binding and recorded in the minutes of the meeting. There are many directions, via subsidiary and a motion can take between being made and being voted on. Also, there is a hierarchy of precedence to motions, which leads some motions to “yield” to others. Refer to Robert’s Rules of Order or one of the many available “cheat sheets.”

A main motion introduces a new item, thus bringing forth business to the assembly. It needs a second to be heard. It can be debated, amended by a subsidiary motion, delayed, or any number of actions taken on it. There can only be one main motion at a time. In parliamentary procedure, the steps taken on a motion are as follows:

1.      A member makes a motion.
2.      Another member seconds the motion.
3.      The chair states the question.
4.      Members debate/discuss the motion.
5.      The chair restates the question and puts the question to a vote
6.      The chair announces the results of the vote.

A subsidiary motion is applied to a main motion. It can modify the main motion, delay action on it, or dispose of it. Subsidiary motions can postpone a motion indefinitely (such “killing” of a motion is rare in school board meetings); amend a main motion; commit or refer a motion (such as sending it to committee); postpone to a certain time; limit or extend limits of debate; move the previous question (this stops the discussion); and/or lay the question on the table (which requires a motion to bring it back).

The subsidiary motion to amend modifies the main motion via insert, delete (strike), or strike and insert. Amendments must be germane to the pending motion and are limited to one amendment and one amendment to the amendment. 

A privileged motion is an urgent or important matter, unrelated to the pending business before the group. The five privileged motions include a call for the orders of the day (this is used when the discussion veers, to bring it back to the agenda); raising a question of privilege; taking a recess; adjourning; and fixing the time to which to adjourn (the latter is unusual in school board work).

An incidental motion questions procedure and its purpose protect the rights of the members. Incidental motions include a point of order (in cases where rules are not being followed); appeal the decision of the chair; point of information; and parliamentary inquiry (similar to but a bit nicer than, a point of order). Other incidental motions would be to suspend the rules (for example, in a town hall-style meeting); and to divide the question or consider it by paragraph.

A board of education is unlikely to use “a re-do motion” but they do exist: reconsider (in the same meeting), rescind; or amend an item previously adopted (in a subsequent meeting).

Making a motion takes three words from a member of the deliberative group: “I move that …” Once a motion is made, it must be seconded, which essentially indicates that another member agrees that the motion is of value. Once seconded, the chairperson repeats the motion back to the group, and opens it for consideration. The discussion takes place, and eventually, the chair restates the question and puts the question to a vote, with which the group ultimately takes action that concludes the motion.

What Happens if We Don’t?
Without parliamentary procedure, even a non-contentious discussion can devolve into disorganization. Each of these drawbacks gets in the way of moving the business of the board forward, and using the time efficiently, effectively, and fairly:

  • The chair dominates the meeting.
  • Improper handling of motions, or a motion not restated.
  • Allowing too much informality.
  • Mismanaging or not managing the pace of the meeting.
  • Poor agenda planning.
  • Allowing discussions without a pending motion.
  • Discussing multiple issues at the same time.
  • Allowing negatively worded motions — in other words, a board should not be moving to not do something.

Trusting the meeting to parliamentary procedure mitigates or minimizes these drawbacks, therefore making the meeting more efficient and allowing all voices to be heard. The purpose of a meeting is to determine the will of the majority in an efficient manner, while protecting the rights of the minority. Why is this so important? The authority of the school board is not with the individual member, but in the decisions of the full board acting in concert. And these decisions can only be made in a board of education meeting.

Adapted from the webinar “Parliamentary Procedure for the Novice” by Dee Molinare, which is available at the Journal’s resources link, bit.ly/MJ21-Jres. Dee Molinare, Ed.D, is Field Services Director for IASB’s DuPage, Starved Rock, and North Cook divisions