March/April 2022

From the Field: When Conflict Arises in the Board Room

By Patrick Allen

The mention of the word conflict more than likely makes a lot of you uncomfortable.  Most people do not like conflict. More importantly, most people do not deal with conflict in a good way and allow that conflict to carry on longer than it should. 

Since the start of the pandemic in March of 2020, school boards have faced more conflict than they ever have before. Community members within your districts have strong opinions about decisions that districts have made regarding COVID safety and remote learning, for example. These community members have chosen to voice these opinions at school board meetings during the public comment section, often also sharing these opinions on social media. 

An effective school board welcomes public comment as an opportunity to engage with the community and get a first-hand account of what community members think about certain issues. As you have likely seen, your community is passionate about topics surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, and that passion has tended to lead to tense public comment. While we all hope that the speakers are going to conduct themselves in a manner that the children of the district could use as an example of good behavior, we know that hasn’t always been the case.

 It is important as a board member to listen to the speaker and try to understand their point of view, even if you disagree with it. Not everyone is going to agree on every topic. As an elected official, you owe it to the community to listen to their comments, even if you disagree.  Try to maintain distance from the tone of the comment and listen to the points that are being made. 

Not only has your board likely faced conflict from the community over the past two years, but you have likely faced conflict with other board members during the same time frame.  Board members are not forbidden from having strong opinions about topics, and this has been proven over the past two years. Just as you should listen to the community, even if they are presenting with heightened emotions, you should also listen to your fellow board members if they are doing the same. 

Having a plan to deal with conflict resolution is important for board members. While we know that not every conflict is going to be resolved to our liking, having a framework for how to deal with this conflict can make life easier on a board. 

Below is a list to keep in mind when conflict arises in the board room:
  • When angry, separate yourself from the situation and take time to cool off.
  • Attack the problem, not the person. Start with a compliment.
  • Communicate your feelings assertively, but not aggressively. Express them without blaming.
  • Focus on the issue, not your position on the issue.
  • Accept and respect that individual opinions may differ. Don’t try to force compliance; instead work to develop common agreement.
  • Do not review the situation as a competition, where one has to win, and one has to lose. Work toward a solution where both parties can have some of their needs met.
  • Focus on areas of common interest and agreement, instead of areas of disagreement and opposition.
  • Never jump to conclusions or make assumptions about what another is feeling or thinking.
  • Listen without interrupting and ask for feedback if needed to assure a clear understanding of the issue.
  • Remember, when only one person’s needs are satisfied in a conflict, it is not resolved and will continue.
  • Forget the past and stay in the present.
  • Build “power with,” not “power over” others.
  • Thank the person for listening.
The sixth Foundational Principle of Effective Governance is the board taking responsibility for itself. This can mean the board as all seven members making sure that it is leading the district in the most effective way that it can. It means being clear and concise in its direction to the superintendent. It can also mean that each individual board member needs to ensure that they are contributing to the effectiveness of the board, and that they are coming to the table with an open mind regarding current issues.

We all form opinions ahead of time — it is human nature to do so. As a board member, it is your responsibility to make sure that you hear both sides of the issue. And not only hear both sides but try to understand both sides. This isn’t to say that you need to change your opinion, but as someone holding a trusted position within the community, you owe it to the community to listen to every point being made. 

There is absolutely no doubt that we are living in difficult and unprecedented times. It is natural for conflict to occur, but if the school board, and you as an individual member, not only follows the steps above, but also keeps the best interest of the district in mind, you can navigate that conflict more easily and provide the best outcomes for your district and your community. 

Patrick Allen is Field Services Director for IASB’s Abe Lincoln, Kaskaskia, Southwestern, and Two Rivers divisions.