Tuesday, March 2, 2010

About MSB Model Board Policy 206

In my last post, I explained that the Board of Education is evaluating its approach to obtaining citizen input at board meetings. In the midst of this, I've been engaged by citizens who have discovered Board Policy 206 and who believe that this board policy gives any citizen the right to get on our agenda to make comments on any agenda item by requesting time from the superintendent. As I've discussed this with the proponents of this view, I've found myself sounding a lot like a lawyer parsing technical language. I can't avoid doing that, as painful as it may be to readers, because we are discussing the meaning of a binding policy, after all, but I don't want to lose sight of the central focus that started the discussion. The Board is looking for more effective ways of involving the public in its deliberations. But I thought it would be helpful, for those of you who have been looking at Board Policy 206, to explain why its not really a solution.

Since I wasn't involved in drafting or passing Board Policy 206, I tried to go to the horses mouth, as it were, to see who drafted it and what they had in mind. It turns out that Board Policy is a "model policy" drafted by staffer who is no longer at the Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA). I contacted the current policy wonk at the MSBA and she said that MSBA does not interpret the policy to provide the right to speak on agenda items at board meetings. She explained that you have to read Board Policy 206 carefully, and also read it along with Board Policy 203.5. Taken together, she says, these policies provide for a method for a citizen to request that the Board of Education place an item, suggested by the citizen, on the agenda. Then, if the matter is placed on the agenda, the policy provides a mechanism for the citizen to be heard on that item.

Now before we get into a huge debate about the meaning of language, let's just begin by acknowledging that the folks who drafted the policy in the first place don't believe that Board Policy 206 provides the right for a citizen to place herself on our agenda. And let's acknowledge that we probably will never recover what the person who drafted it a decade ago was thinking. At the end of the day, the solution to finding improved ways of involving the public is going to involve a brand new policy.

Board Policy 206 says:

Citizens who wish to have a subject discussed at a public school board meeting are encouraged to notify the superintendent’s office in advance of the school board meeting. The citizen should provide his or her name, address, the name of group represented (if any), and the subject to be covered or the issue to be addressed.

Board Policy 206 provides a mechanism for a citizen to request that the Board of Education place an item on our agenda. It is simply not designed to individual citizens the right to place themselves on the agenda. It provides a method for a citizen to say, I would like to bring this to your attention, and would you please consider putting this topic on your agenda as a citizen suggested item.

Now the rest of Board Policy 206, it seems to me is dealing with what happens in response to that request. The MSBA staffer explains that you have to look to Board Policy 203.5 to remind yourself who gets to decide whether to honor that request or not. And the answer is that the Board makes that decision. Board Policy 203.5 says:

It shall be the responsibility of the school board chair and superintendent to develop,prepare and arrange the order of items for the tentative school board meeting agenda for each school board meeting.

Board Policy 203.5 also echoes policy 206 by saying:

"Persons wishing to place an item on the agenda must make a request to the school board chair or superintendent in a timely manner. The person making the request is encouraged to state the person’s name, address, purpose of the item, action desired and pertinent background information. The chair and superintendent shall determine whether to place the matter on the tentative agenda."

The agenda decision's of the committee are subject to approval or modification by the Board, as the policy explains:

Items may only be added to the agenda by a motion adopted at the meeting. If an added item is acted upon, the minutes of the school board meeting shall include a description of the matter.

Nothing gets on our agenda, except through the agenda committee, or by addition by motion of the full board.

Now I should mention in passing that this cutting from Board Policy 203.5 has actually been partially superseded by a later adopted policy, which says that agenda development is the responsibility of the agenda committee, which includes the superintendent, the board chair and the board vice-chair. In our school district, for as long as I've been on the board, the agenda committee meets a week before the agenda and creates the tentative agenda and reviews the agenda packet for submission to the board. Thus, if a citizen notifies the superintendent that he or she wants to suggest a citizen item for the agenda, then the first point of decision is the agenda committee. Not even a board member can force an item on the agenda, so certainly a citizen cannot either. Agenda items are placed on the agenda, in an orderly fashion to make sure that when they come before the board, there has been adequate preparation and it is something that is ready for the board's consideration. (As we have gone to an active committee system, another way that an item can get on our agenda is through a board committee, still subject to the recommendation of the agenda committee).

In any event, the rest of Policy 206 deals with items that are placed on the agenda by the board at citizen request. It says that in that event "Citizens who wish to address the school board on a particular agenda item may speak during the discussion of that item." And this explains the misunderstanding. This provision is simply not intended to allow citizens to place themselves on the board agenda to talk about any item of their choosing. Presentations to the board on those items are dealt with by the "open forum" provision, which says:

The school board provides a specified period of time where citizens may address the school board on any topic, subject to the limitations of this policy. The school board reserves the right to allocate a specific period of time for this purpose and limit time for speakers accordingly.

Now there are some smaller councils and boards who follow the practice of letting citizens interrupt their meetings to talk on any agenda item that they please. This is a common, but increasingly less frequent practice in small communities. But in a community our size, it would be impossible and unwise to conduct business in this way.

That brings me back to the question I originally posed, about what is the best way to get citizen input. At the present time, we provide a short period before each workshop meeting where a citizen can stand up and speak at the podium for a limited time. But board members have long recognized that this is not a very useful method to get meaningful input. For this reason, during the time that I've been on the board, a variety of other devices have been tried. On several occasions, we've tried the "circle of conversation" method, in which the Board invites a target group of representative citizens to join us in conversation. We've done that periodically at schools. And, on occasion, we've done that to discuss a particular subject matter.

The advantage of the circle of conversation approach is that a citizen doesn't have to stand up and give a speech in front of a bunch of people. In addition, this approach provides for more dialog and exchange. We are listening to a group of people in more intimate dialog.

Another device that we've tried is to conduct topical forums where information is presented and then citizens can ask questions. We've also visited schools and invited citizen comment respecting that particular school. We get input in a variety of other ways of course. People stop us on the street or in a coffee shop and speak their mind. We get emails: I read all my board emails and try to respond thoughtfully. We get a phone call now and again. Occasionally, we get letters. Over the years, I've received several anonymous letters with no return address making one or another assertion, but leaving no method to follow up. For me, the blog dialog is another source of information. It gives me a sense of what the people who are crazy enough to post want to tell a board member who is crazy enough to want to blog. The questions are often challenging, and I find myself often following up by double checking or digging further to get information. So, actually, though it may not always seem, so, it helps me do a better job.

Another approach that we have used to getting input is to convene a panel of citizens who know something special about a particular topic. We did that several months ago by bringing in a group of people with experience in early childhood education. We also attend various forums and meetings scheduled by citizens groups which may invite us to listen to them.

In the next couple of months, I expect that the board will be discussing this issue further. Just as important to getting public input is doing a better job of involving parents and other stakeholders in the decision making process at the school district and in schools, before they get to the board.

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