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September/October 2022

Practical PR: Steps for Reducing Incivility at Board Meetings

By Faith Behr

Public education is facing a crisis unlike anything in decades and it’s not going away soon. Fanned by the pandemic, enrollment is down, absences are up, and many students are facing academic and social deficits. There aren’t enough teachers, aides, or bus drivers. Students are anxious, parents are angry, and who knows what the next phase of COVID will bring. Sadly, much of this turmoil ends up in the Board room.

How do we keep these issues from turning into skirmishes at Board meetings? How do we keep community discourse civil?

According to a recent report from the national League of Cities, more than 80% of local government officials have experienced some form of harassment, abuse, or violence while in office over the course of the pandemic. Sadly, this type of discourse in public meetings has far-reaching effects. Negative comments and hostile environments can derail or prolong school board meetings and discourage other community engagement. This incivility may cause boards to shorten public comment time, shut down speakers, and drop a second public comment time. All that does is inflame the public and create more mistrust. Further, it impacts the ability to attract high-quality administrators, teachers, and staff.

So how do we maintain civil discourse while maintaining public access and ensuring the safety of board members and staff? Most of the work is in planning ahead.

Create Expectations for Public Comment
Explain the boundaries and expectations for public comment at the start of the meeting. Most who attend board meetings aren’t familiar with local government and how it works. Create a handout or a video to explain how your board operates, the rules for public comment, and why civility is important to model (our children are watching!). The board president should read a similar statement about expectations for public comment, including explaining the purpose of the meeting and why the board doesn’t always respond to questions during the meeting. It’s also beneficial for boards to tell a speaker at the dais that an administrator will follow up with them, if possible, in one-to-two days about their question or concern.

Model Civility
Civility at the board table always matters.
  • Model civility and kindness to fellow board members
  • Collaborate and operate as a team
  • Demonstrate honesty and integrity in every action
  • Practice active listening
  • Always follow public comment rules equally for everyone
Create a Code of Conduct

I also recommend that boards create a set of norms, a code of conduct, or rules of decorum for themselves and attendees at public meetings. These documents set expectations for how school board members and attendees should conduct themselves at meetings. Common elements could include:

  • Treat everyone courteously
  • Be inclusive
  • Show respect
  • Take responsibility
  • Give consideration to all viewpoints
  • Focus on the issues and avoid personalizing debate
  • Disagree agreeably and professionally

The norms can include provisions against behavior by commentors or attendees that provoke violent behavior or disturb the orderly management of the meeting. Adopting a policy can also allow for enforcement measures such as warnings, ejections from meetings, or even suspension from government buildings. This too should be read prior to public comment.

Chart a Chain of Command
Another helpful tool is a document posted on the web and publicized widely, including to staff, that details the chain of command. It would chart who on staff to address with a question or when reporting a concern, and who to address when escalating that concern. That way, fewer questions may end up at the board table.

Prioritize Connections and Relationships
During these tumultuous times, priority should be given to building bridges and relationships. Provide opportunities for community engagement and input outside of school board meetings. Consider deploying public engagement efforts on hot-button issues or a town hall year-in-review, coffee with the superintendent, bagels with the board, and other type of public input. It’s important that families and community members feel heard, especially during difficult times. These engagement sessions can often offset negative comments at board meetings. If you purposefully and regularly communicate and engage with your community over the long term, you will grow a culture of mutual respect and trust.

Surveys and digital tools are another way to obtain stake holder feedback, and when used regularly can capture a baseline of satisfaction and track improvement over time.

Survey Results can be Leveraged to Show Support
Survey results can be an effective tool to show public support behind the district and its initiatives. It can also put negative comments into perspective. Remember that you, as board members, may be hearing from a small, vocal minority. An Axios survey showed that 71% of parents believed that their school district did a good or very good job in managing education during the pandemic; and 10% did a poor job. You’re likely hearing from that 10% minority.

Strive for Consensus or Agree to Disagree
There is a human condition called “splitting” or creating a “we” vs. “them” mentality. When we do this, we tend not to listen, to not build bridges nor to seek to understand. When we have this black-and-white thinking, we tend not to look for common solutions. As elected leaders, we need to listen to people’s complaints and try to understand what might be fueling them. When constituents make negative or hostile comments to your board, this is the time to be open-minded, embrace diverse points of view and work for the common good. It’s time to strive for a win-win and seek consensus.

There always will be critics of public schools and school boards. Increasingly, some of it is political and some of it is intentionally destructive.

However, most people are speaking out of frustration. We need to identify and demonstrate constructive, respectful conversations and acknowledge that others are coming from different experiences and expectations. That way we can have better and more civil outcomes, and ones that don’t spill over into social media and other places in the community.
 

Faith Behr is Principal/Consultant with Behr Communication, a public relations/public affairs firm serving public schools. To learn more visit BehrCommunications.com.