Public Participation at Board Meetings
How you feel about board meetings probably depends on where you’re from. There are many districts in the State for which every single meeting is a stressful event at which legions of supposedly concerned citizens seem to attack even the most benign decision. Believe it or not, there are also plenty of districts where the board and administration quietly go about the business of education and it’s rare for anyone from the public to even show up, unless it’s award night for the kids. Sometimes the administrators and members of these boards actually wish the public were more involved and taking an active part in the meetings. To this we say, be careful what you wish for. Even the quietest communities can suddenly get riled up over a hot button issue (anything that impacts a successful sports program is usually a good candidate). This article will provide guidance and discuss strategies to help keep the stress of dealing with public participation to a manageable level.
The law requires that a portion of each board meeting be set aside for public participation. Actually, the law says public comment and this is an important distinction. During the public participation portion of the meeting, a member of the public has the right to comment on any school district issue that he or she feels may be of concern to the residents of the district. However, there is no requirement that anyone from the board or administration has to respond. Meetings can get heated when someone from the board and a member of the public engage in a debate that degenerates into a shouting match. Sometimes you may want to advise the board that the best strategy is to simply not engage directly with the members of the public. Let them make their comments, thank them for their input, and move on. If the board feels compelled to provide immediate answers, it may helpful to wait until each member of the pubic has had their say and then respond to all of them after the comment period is over. If there is going to be a response, it’s advisable to designate one or two people to do so. For instance, it might make sense for the superintendent to respond on most operational issues and for the board president to make any comments on behalf of the board.
The law also specifically says that it is up to the board to determine the length of the public comment portion of the meeting. This is an important tool that some boards don’t take advantage of. Encourage your board to set a reasonable period of time for comment at each meeting. This can vary from district to district. In some places, twenty minutes may be sufficient, in others it may need to be forty minutes or even an hour. Whatever it is, stick to it. Of course, on some occasions there will be issues that are so big that the board should allow for extra comment. That’s OK, but do it formally. Suggest that the board president announce upfront that, because of the great interest and number of speakers, the comment period will be extended to an hour or an hour and a half, then try to keep to that schedule.
An important corollary to setting limits on the length of the public comment period is limiting the time permitted for each speaker. We’ve seen boards that allot anywhere from two to five minutes per speaker. This is useful to keep the meeting moving, to force the speakers to focus, and to prevent one or two individuals from monopolizing the discussion.
Whatever rules are put in place, it’s best to set them forth in policy and apply them regularly and consistently. A sure way to invite trouble is to allow some speakers to go over their allotted time while holding others strictly to the limit. More importantly, if the rules are applied consistently, the public will eventually adapt to them and even begin to police themselves. It is also helpful to have the board president remind the public what the rules are at the beginning of each public comment period.
One way in which the superintendent can really help the board deal with public comment is by anticipating hot button issues in advance and devising strategies to address them. Don’t just react at the meeting, try to steal the public’s thunder. Some issues can be defused by a well crafted statement at the beginning of the meeting which explains the board’s position or clears up a misunderstanding. If there are going to be issues with the size of the room or crowd control, or if special rules may be needed because of the number of speakers expected, try to address them with the board president as far in advance of the meeting as possible.
Finally, a few words about the content of public comment. This is an area in which your board really can get itself in trouble. As public bodies, boards of education are subject to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. This means that citizens have wide latitude when it comes to speaking in public. Reasonable restrictions on the time and manner of speech are permitted, but any attempt by a board to censure someone’s speech based on the content of what they are saying is suspect. In this regard, boards have been found liable when they permitted positive comments about the district or staff but refused to allow negative ones. A board cannot restrict someone’s speech just because they don’t like what they’re saying. Of course, some restrictions are permitted. There is no protection for speech that is obscene, abusive, unreasonably loud, racially charged, or that threatens the safety of the listeners, and speech that is truly repetitive or totally unrelated to education or the school district may be restricted as well.
When it comes to public participation at board meetings, the best advice is summarized in the traditional motto of the Boy Scouts, be prepared, and make sure your board is prepared as well.