Boards Under Attack: Building a Counter Plan
Public boards trying to deal with angry constituents is a challenge. All the “what if” moments to consider – while hoping those what-if events won’t happen. Not to you. Not to your board or Superintendent. Not in your community.
We know that district leaders are reeling from the acrimonious attacks at board meetings. For some individual members, the viciousness has caused personal decisions not to run again. Superintendents are leaving the profession in record numbers. Threats to board members’ and Superintendents’ physical and psychological safety, and the toll that those threats have taken on personal lives, have become too great for even consideration of more volunteer or paid service to their communities.
These assaults can happen in any district. If not now, the threats continue to lurk in the shadows as boards confront decisions such as school closings, renaming facilities, contract negotiations, boundaries, budget cutbacks, masking and vaxing, CRT … we could go on. Personal experiences as former administrators have found us in similar painful situations, and we too learned the hard way.
So, we posed the question to our clients, asking them: how have your board and district handled recent difficult confrontations? We received great frontline advice about how they responded to unprecedented challenges, which we are pleased to share with you. Let’s dig in.
What physical accommodations do you recommend for receiving citizen comments at board meetings?
- Meet ahead with law enforcement and security specialists who know your community and the challenges. Follow their best advice. Have police and/or security present and ready to enforce your protocols. Some boards have police that ticket people who attend and fail to observe masking or distancing.
- Have security control access to the meeting room and require everyone to have a seat. No crowding. No standing. No surrounding the Board. No vacant seats means no admission.
- Publish in the agenda, and read aloud prior to starting, the rules for public participation. These should be established and maintained for every meeting, not just when meetings become contentious. Routine and order have a better chance of being followed if you are not perceived as establishing a new “gag order.”
- Establish and enforce a time limit per speaker, providing a 30-second warning for “time’s up.” Use the time limit with speakers at the meeting, on-line, or if you allow emails to be read into the record.
- Ask for one speaker to represent the “shared” concern if multiple people want to address the same issue. You may need to call for a 10-minute recess while people decide who will represent them and what key points they want to have made by the representative. Others can stand “in solidarity” while the representative speaks. Staff can capture attendees’ names for a follow up if you choose to write a note the next day thanking people for taking the time to come to the board meeting.
- Consider if you want or need to require social distancing and masking. Everyone needs to feel safe.
What messaging should be considered by the Board?
- Again, maintain your public participation rules as they have always been administered. No give and take unless there is a simple clarification to be made in response to a question – and that response comes from the president.
- Opening statement, sample: Members of the public who desire to address the board on any topic related to board work are welcome to do so at this time. Speakers must limit their remarks to not more than 3 minutes and appoint a spokesperson if the concern is a group concern. Personal attacks will not be allowed. Focus on an individual will end a speaker’s comment time period. The board will not respond to any public comment now, but will review the expressed concern and provide responses as needed after consideration.
- Consider adding the role and duty of police/security to your opening. They are with us to ensure a safe environment – for all of us.
- If possible and safe, greet attendees. In one small community, the board routinely and personally greets community members as they enter the board room. One district’s administrative staff recently provided bottles of cold water and a welcome to visitors.
What strategies do you endorse when meetings get out of control?
- Delay or adjourn the meeting until such time as order can be restored.
- Return to live streaming until such time as the board feels people can behave civilly. Board, administrative staff and invited guests may attend in person. Public participants are Zoomed into the room while the community watches the live stream.
- Consider TV monitors in an adjacent room or space for those who cannot enter the meeting.
How do you plan for the physical and psychological safety of board members?
- Live streaming and virtual meetings to replace in-person.
- Special lighted and guarded parking lots/spaces with a separate entrance/exit.
- Conversations with experienced board members who’ve been through “the fire”.
- Increased distancing between the board and the audience.
- Providing board members’ home addresses to the police for regular drive-by monitoring.
- Meeting with a psychologist or a trusted counselor before and/or after meetings to debrief the circumstances, individual concerns and reactions.
How does the Board communicate its reasoning about divisive decisions?
- Messaging on the board’s section of the district’s website.
- Working on Op Eds for the newspaper.
- Developing videos that will recap the decisions made during board meetings.
Special thanks to the following contributors:
Dr. Wendy Birhanzel, superintendent, Harrison 2 SD in CO
Jon Lee, board member, Bismarck SD in ND
Rick Maloney, board member, University Place SD in WA
Karen Mikolainis, board member, Whitnall SD in WI
Kristin Smith, board president, Durango 9-R SD in CO
Kathy Strecker, board member, Chippewa Falls SD in WI