September/October 2021

Leadership Letter: Leading Conversations in a Divided Community

By Thomas E. Bertrand

Over the past 18 months,  school boards have faced increased scrutiny over decisions about school reopening, COVID-19 mitigation requirements, and curriculum decisions. These decisions often bring out the best — and worst — in the behavior of community members who attend board meetings and can make for challenging public comment periods. By following a few guiding principles, boards can more effectively navigate these contentious situations.
Have strong procedures in place for public meetings. It is important to remind attendees that a meeting of the board of education is a meeting held in public — not a public meeting. While attendees do have a right to address the board during a public comment period, they do not have the right to disrupt the meeting and impede the board’s ability to conduct its business. Review procedures with legal counsel in order to confidently confront issues that arise.
Avoid a debate over controversial topics with meeting attendees. Impassioned community members sometimes try to engage the board in debate involving a contentious topic. It is generally not productive to debate attendees about a topic during the public comment portion of school board meetings. A popular metaphor comes to mind: “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it.” Instead, at the appropriate time provide information and correct misinformation.
Listen respectfully. Remember, nobody likes to be labeled and minimized, including your critics. Listening without responding is sometimes difficult to do — especially when an individual appears to be misinformed.
Focus on the work of your district. Attendees may attempt to bring national issues such as Critical Race Theory (CRT) before the board. It is important that the board focus on the work that is happening within the district as opposed to what is not happening. For example, share your district’s equity goals and priority actions, and be clear about your “why.” Stay laser focused on your students, their needs, and what is happening locally.
Your board’s work matters. As others try to distract you, remember why you chose board service, and be an example to others. Whenever possible, shift the focus back to your kids. Now more than ever our school districts require stable, dedicated leadership. Know that your Association is here for you, and thank you for answering the call to board service.
Thomas E. Bertrand, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Illinois Association of School Boards.