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November/December, 2009

Speaking with 'one voice' shouldn't stifle opinion

The question for this issue is answered by Linda Dawson, director/editorial services and Journal editor.

Question: We've heard about the board speaking with "one voice," but we're seven different people with different opinions. The media feel they should be able to call any of us. What should we say? What should be confidential?

Answer: Speaking with one voice does not mean that board members cannot hold their own opinions. But once a vote has been taken, even if it is 4-3, each board member should respect the rule of the majority and stand behind the decision.

In board policy, school boards can designate a spokesperson, usually the board president, and ask that the media contact that person on any or all issues. In other cases, the board may want to designate someone to speak to a specific issue because of expertise, i.e. a board member who serves on a curriculum committee may be more prepared to speak about that committee's actions.

If the media call individual board members who want to honor the concept of "speaking with one voice," it's not necessary to say, "I can't talk to you about that." A more helpful response might be: "Our board president is our official spokesperson. I did vote against the measure, but the majority of the board felt otherwise. We had a good process for input and discussion before reaching this decision. I will support the board's decision. If you need specific information on this issue, please contact Mr. Jones at 555-1234, or contact our superintendent, Ms. Smith at 555-4321. I would be happy to talk with you at any time if you have questions about our district mission, vision and the goals the board has established for the coming year."

The concept of speaking with "one voice" grows from the idea of respect for the board as the governing entity. Board members only have power when they act as part of the board, not as an individual. This can be a difficult concept for some to grasp but it is a true role for a school board member.

In the November/December 2006 Journal article, "The 3 R's of board work: Roles, respect, responsibility," representatives of Bourbonnais SD53 explained it this way:

"Certainly, all views held by individual members need to be heard, inclusive of those that dissent. Debate is a good thing if done decently, respectfully and with order. It is not this process that requires a voice of singularity. However, after all views have been heard, decisions made and a vote is cast, where a majority approves or disapproves of a motion, it is now the board's decision in its official capacity. It is at this moment that all members must support the decision of the board and move forward with this board directed action.

"There will always be situations where individual board members feel very strongly about an issue or a situation and they may be tempted to step outside their role. The board president plays a pivotal role in assisting the board members to refocus on the concept that individual members have no authority outside the board table and the only decision making/action comes with a majority vote of the board."

As to confidentiality, nowhere do the issues of school board roles, respect and responsibility come together more profoundly, especially with respect to closed session information.

Items discussed in closed session are considered confidential and for the board's ears only because they involve sensitive information that could involve legal liability if divulged, such as information about specific students and employees, or lawsuits; or information that, if made public, could jeopardize the well-being — financial and otherwise — of the district, such as collective bargaining positions or the planned sale or purchase of real estate.

Some superintendents remind their board members about confidentiality following any sensitive issue, but board members also can remind each other about the importance of this concept.

Even though no statute provides any penalty for releasing confidential information, both non-legal and legal consequences can ensue, according to Melinda Selbee, IASB general counsel, depending on the nature of the confidentiality that was disclosed and the scope of the disclosure.

A non-legal consequence may be a loss of credibility, and in her experience, the loss of an individual's credibility can result in diminished effectiveness and support.

Possible legal consequences might include civil suits against the school district or against an individual school board member and will depend both on what was disclosed and to whom. Two examples are a board member who might be held responsible for any increased costs to the district for a contract because of a breach of confidentiality, or any damages that might result because of improper disclosure of private information about a student or employee.

While it may be difficult not to talk about what happens during a closed session with a spouse or a friend, new board members as well as veterans may need to be reminded frequently of a corollary to a popular Las Vegas commercial: What happens in the boardroom, stays in the boardroom.

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