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March-April, 2008

Is a 'second' required following a motion?

John Cassel, field services director for DuPage, North Cook and Starved Rock divisions, answers the question for this issue. While not a parliamentarian, he regularly offers a Robert's Rules panel at the IASB/IASA/IASBO Joint Annual Conference.

Question: I was surprised when I learned some school boards do not require a second for a motion to be "pending" before the body. Is a second required or not?

Answer: Local board policy trumps Robert's Rules, so you first need to determine what your local policy says on this procedure question. If your policy requires a second, then that's how you need to conduct your meetings (unless you choose to change your policy). Most likely your local policy is silent on this matter.

Many boards adopt Robert's Rules of Order as their parliamentary authority. Some people are surprised to learn Henry Robert really created two sets of rules: one for big assemblies and a second set for groups of less than 12. Small group rules are found under "procedure in small boards" (Robert's Rules of Order, 10th Edition, page 470). The basic principles are the same for both groups, but a few differences in procedure are noted between small and large groups. Requiring a second is one of the differences.

Many school boards already practice some of the small board rules. In small groups, the president can participate in the debate and vote. In a large assembly, the president stays impartial, voting only in case of a tie. Because board presidents are elected officials, just like other members of the school board, they are obliged to state their position on various topics and vote. The public deserves to know where the president stands on matters before the board.

In small groups, like school boards, discussion can proceed without a motion on the floor. Seven people usually can manage to keep a freewheeling discussion productive, whereas 100 folks need greater clarity regarding exactly what they are talking about (i.e., a motion which someone can repeat verbatim). School boards often need to talk a bit before they know what motions they want to entertain, and that freedom to "just talk" usually serves the group. If a member feels a particular conversation is not focused or productive, he or she can always try a formal motion.

From a parliamentary perspective, a second assures that at least two people think the motion is worthy of consideration. If only one member wishes to discuss a certain issue and keeps bringing it up, requiring a second allows the board to move forward because the motion "dies for lack of a second."

However, on a school board, one person is already 14 percent of the group. Some boards are eager to give appropriate weight to the voice of one person (even when it is a minority) and do not require a second. Thus, if a member of the school board makes a motion, the board is committed to at least discuss the matter.

Of course, it's fair game for the very next person to move to close the debate. And if that motion succeeds, the board is saved from discussing something it chooses not to debate. But, appropriately, it took a vote of the board to get there.

The decision on whether or not to require a second for motions should be thoughtfully and carefully discussed, and it is helpful if the board is in general agreement before proceeding. A local board may also choose to consult legal counsel, since that person will need to defend the board, if questioned.

In large measure, the board is responsible for its own processes and the success of its own meetings. Wise boards know they must spend time carefully thinking about how they do business and what appropriate expectations they have for one another. The payoff is satisfying meetings, good relationships and quality leadership for the district.

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