September/October 2022

Civil Discourse: From Boardroom, to Classroom, and Back

By Theresa Kelly Gegen
 
Civil discourse is, practically speaking, a conversation intended to improve understanding. When we engage in civil discourse, we study a problem, examine for understanding the arguments on all sides, and discuss and deliberate to seek solutions. Civil discourse is, philosophically speaking, a conversation intended to promote the greater good.
 
These days, dialogue across differences can often be difficult to navigate.  A board of education is expected to adopt and enforce all policies necessary for the management and governance of the public schools of the district. The board studies the needs of students and the community and bases its decisions on those needs.
 
Once upon a time, school boards could typically sidestep hot political topics by focusing on the needs of students and the community. Today, even at the local level, just about anything is a political topic. In Illinois and throughout the nation, boards of education are experiencing firsthand the difficulties of civil discourse in today’s polarized climate. The firestorm of political battles reaches into coping with coronavirus, educating with equity, and plenty of questions of curriculum, has the education community on edge. Boards of education are on alert.
 
When differences happen within the board, conversation to improve understanding is critical. Civil discourse as a skill is vital to public education. When differences happen between the board and its community, there is even more at play.
 
“Civility isn’t just an optional aspect of our system of government — it is an essential component of democracy,” wrote Lawrence S. Feinsod, Executive Director of the New Jersey School Boards Association in a column for the Newark Star-Ledger.
 
The civility aspect of civil discourse starts with the idea of politeness, but if it’s only politeness, discourse stalls. If it’s only impoliteness, discourse stalls. Civil discourse calls for discussion and deliberation.
 
Back to School
The simple, sunshiny, semi-spiritual All I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten is a list of rules to live by, written by Robert Fulgham in the 1980s. It started as a blurb in a church bulletin, grew into a bestselling book, and became an international phenomenon. Times have changed — and certainly kindergarten has changed — since the book was published in 1986. But some of the rules are more apt and necessary to civil discourse in school board work today than they were when we were in kindergarten, or even three very short, yet extremely long years ago.
 
“Play fair,” we learned in Kindergarten. “Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.”
 
Further along in the academic career of an Illinois public school student are mandated civics courses. Since 2016 for high schoolers, and as of 2020 for middle-grade students, every public school in Illinois must include at least one semester of civics education, “which shall help young people acquire and learn to use the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that will prepare them to be competent and responsible citizens throughout their lives,” according to Public Act 099-0434, which continues, “Civics course content shall focus on government, institutions, the discussion of current and controversial issues, service learning, and simulations of the democratic process.” Here we see what we learned in kindergarten developing into a foundation for civil discourse.
 
Chicago Public Schools builds further upon this foundation through the Department of Social Science and Civic Engagement, which oversees resources to promote civic life across the district. The department has an element of coursework titled “Structured Academic Controversy: Deliberation in a Democracy,” which calls for “deliberation, not debate.” Students first define deliberation and are presented an issue. In groups, students consider the issue from one perspective, then switch. They form their own opinions, then share them. If there is agreement, they develop a policy. If there is disagreement, “… they should work to build consensus and find a common ground on which they might agree and create a policy from that” according to the summary for teachers. “This is very difficult and can be frustrating for students. Remind them that our democracy needs to find a way to deal with important issues even when people have very different and very strong opinions -- otherwise our government would never work.”
 
This will sound familiar to members of effective school boards. The lessons students learn in the classroom — to get along, to be competent and responsible citizens, and to engage in civil discourse — are applicable everywhere in the education arena.
  
Bridging the Divide in the Boardroom
Especially for school boards, civil discourse for understanding and finding solutions requires mutual respect, the ability to listen, and the wisdom to know what can and can’t be done in the moment.
 
The Code of Conduct for School Board Members states “I will respectfully listen to those who communicate with the board, seeking to understand their views, while recognizing my responsibility to represent the interests of the entire community.”
 
Noting that conflict is inevitable, Amanda Ripley, author of High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, discusses “looping for understanding,” which means re-wording and reflecting what someone says back to them, and asking if that was correct.
 
“Listening and checking for understanding is probably the single best way to keep conflict healthy,” Ripley says. “That’s why it is practiced by everyone who navigates high conflict with grace. Wherever you find a wise minister, psychologist, salesperson, or hostage negotiator, you will find someone who knows how to loop, even if they don’t call it that.”
 
For this to work in the boardroom, the parties need to be aware of the role of the board.
 
One key is this: Not every matter is a board of education matter. Governance — setting goals and direction, establishing policy — is the work of the board. Management is the work of the administration. More often than not, a school board member will redirect questions and concerns to an appropriate point in the chain of command. This presents challenges, both to community members who wish to be heard, and school board members who wish to be responsive.
 
A second key is to take care. Don’t worry if the board seems to be giving away time, attention, and “oxygen” to issues you would rather not. This is the point of public comment.
 
A third key is this: Public comment at a school board meeting is not for debate. The public speaks and the board listens. This, too, presents challenges to community members who wish to be heard and school board members who wish to be responsive. Public comment is required by law in Illinois and “subject to reasonable constraints.” Boards develop policies and procedures for public input. These policies can include

  • When, on the agenda, the public comment period appears;
  • What an individual must do to participate (e.g. signing in prior to the meeting);
  • A time limit on the public comment period and/or;
  • A time limit on how long any one individual can speak.

These procedures are meant to ensure that board meetings run smoothly and permit the board to conduct the business that is on the agenda for that meeting. An effective board applies its policies consistently.
 
In a perfect world, stakeholders wishing to speak before the board of education would familiarize themselves with the board’s standards for public comment, and the board will acknowledge that speaking before the board is not in a comfort zone for most individuals. All parties, from board members to parents stepping into the space for the first time, must realize that public comment is the time for the board to listen, not debate or decide. In these times, it can be an emotional challenge for a board member to not reply. It can be equally challenging for a member of the public to not receive a reply at the meeting.
 
Said IASB Executive Director Thomas Bertrand in the September 2021 Leadership Letter, “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. ... Instead, at the appropriate time provide information and correct misinformation.”
 
Plan for the Challenges of the Times
Disruption has been a facet of public education for decades, and many boards of education are facing it now. A focus on the issues as they pertain to the school district is wise, although difficult these days. Remember, that the loudest voices aren’t necessarily representative of the full community. Be prepared to listen to all the voices and make it clear that you are listening.
 
To help board members with keeping discourse civil, the IASB Online Learning Center offers a course called Managing Difficult Public Comment: How to KEEP CALM. Members taking the course will, through a series of hypothetical scenarios, learn how boards can effectively manage difficult public comment periods. KEEP CALM is an acronym for eight principles for boards to keep in mind if public comment turns difficult. These include planning ahead, enforcing the meeting rules, and empowering fellow board members.
 
To help community members understand civil discourse and the board, IASB has a new publication, “How School Boards Work: The Role of the Board of Education in the Community,” for districts to share with their communities. It covers the work of the board of education and how community members “can help ensure local decisions about education programs align with your community’s needs.”
 
Ripley notes in times of conflict, many people just want to be heard. She says, “When people feel understood, they trust the other person to go a little deeper and keep trying to get it right.”
 
Civil discourse expects everyone to play fair and to be competent and responsible citizens. It requires practice. At its best, there aren’t winners and losers. There is listening, empathy, and understanding. There are potentially, ideally, and hopefully solutions. Thinking intentionally about civil discourse, to build consensus and find a common ground, is vital to local education communities.

Theresa Kelly Gegen is Editor of the Illinois School Board Journal.