Letter: Suggestions for More Efficient School Board Meetings
To the Editor-
A letter to the Stevens Point Area Public School Board Members:
I apologize for not addressing you in person during a school board meeting, but I teach on Monday evenings. First, I feel I must disclose that I work for the Portage County Business Council Foundation as the Director of Workforce Development. In that capacity I oversee the Leadership Portage County and Partners In Education programs.
That being said, I am not writing as an employee of the Portage County Business Council Foundation, but as a parent and community member. For many months, I have debated voicing my thoughts regarding the behaviors I have observed while watching school board meetings online. Being a parent of a child in the Stevens Point Area Public School District has held me back. While this may seem counterintuitive, I don’t believe I am in a unique position. Due to the personal attacks which happen during school board meetings, my son asked that I not get involved until he graduated from high school as he was unsure what repercussions there could be to him personally. However, after viewing the most recent school board meeting, he looked at me and said, “This is really our school board? Mom, do what you have to do.” It is because of that I am writing to you regarding my concerns.
Workforce development studies have shown that students entering the workforce lack effective interpersonal, communication and conflict resolution skills. As the highest level of leadership in the school district, the school board has the responsibility to model these crucial skills.
Research shows effective boards uphold organizational vision, separate large issues from small issues, force forward thinking, enable productivity, facilitate diversity and unity, and use time efficiently. Below are my personal observations and some suggestions to board members on how to become more effective in these areas.
The board currently has many strong personalities with differing opinions which could be very productive if managed well. Unfortunately, it also has the potential to create conflict if left unchecked. Conflict, when managed well can be very productive and lead to better decisions. My concern is that conflict has become personal amongst board members, effectively negating any good that comes from their differing opinions. This creates a lack of trust between board members, administration and the community. Without trust there can be power struggles, micromanagement and disintegrating communication. This creates a vicious cycle which spirals out of control and negatively impacts all involved.
Effective boards provide vision and guidance for organizations. From what I have witnessed, our current board is very focused on minutia centered around who manages, controls and supervises the board and school district. To help focus discussions and decisions, I recommend the board use the following questions as a guide:
• How does it support the mission to educate the children in the district?
• How does it help reach the vision of preparing each student to be successful?
• How does it support the values of the school board, school district and Stevens Point community?
• Is it fiscally responsible and sustainable?
While watching the October 13th board meeting, my oldest son walked by and watched about thirty seconds of the recorded session. He walked away shaking his head and said, “Wow – what body language. It’s terrible.” Face-to-face communication consists of 55% body language, 38% voice/tone and 7% words. I have seen and heard disrespectful behaviors from board members such as raised voices, sarcastic comments, blame, finger pointing, eye rolling, and power struggles on more than one occasion. If this time and energy were focused on students and educators, we would have an extremely strong school district. I encourage board members to watch the recorded meetings and analyze their own body language, voice/tone and words.
Successful leaders who understand themselves are better able to manage actions, behaviors and conflict while appreciating and embracing differences in others. If we
understand ourselves and how we impact others, we can communicate more effectively. I recommend board members consider the following questions when interacting with each other:
• Would I want others to model my actions and behaviors?
• Would I want others to say or do to me what I am saying and doing to others?
• How do my actions, words and behaviors impact others?
• What do I really want and why? How does this align with the needs of the school district?
• Why are other people saying or doing what they are?
• When in conflict, ask yourself why is this so important to me and what do I really want? Also, ask why is it so important to the other person and what do they really want?
• How do my actions, words and behaviors impact the school district?
• How can I work with my fellow board members to effectively resolve this issue?
We have seen that utilizing Roberts Rules does not an effective meeting make. That is because so much more goes into meetings than understanding parliamentary
procedures. While the school board uses Roberts Rules, the meetings are very lengthy and antagonistic. I encourage the school board to hold active and effective meetings. Some of the following ideas may help:
• Ensure you have guiding statements (mission, vision and value statements) to guide actions and discussions. If you do not have them, please develop them.
• Create meeting guidelines for all members to follow. Although if board members cannot agree to what constitutes comments being civil in content and tone, I am highly
concerned this may not be possible. This is truly one of my biggest concerns. If the board cannot even agree on what civil communication looks like, how can they focus
on and resolve educational issues in a productive manner.
• Finalize an issue before you move on to the next one. Unfinished business tends to bleed issues together, creating frustration and confusion.
• Develop guidelines and procedures for productively handling conflict. There will always be conflict when people interact. It is how they deal with the conflict that is the true
measure of leadership.
As individuals, we can only control our own actions and reactions. We cannot change others. It is my hope that all board members will work to improve communication and have more productive meetings while focusing on what is best for students and educators in the district. If you have any questions or would like information regarding resources used in writing this letter, please address me personally as these thoughts and opinions are mine alone, not that of my sons, the Portage County Business Council or the Portage County Business Council Foundation.