“It’s clear that it is harder to be a school trustee now than it ever has been before,” CSBA CEO & Executive Director Vernon M. Billy said during the association’s Sept. 13 webinar, “Governing in a Time of Chaos: Board Meetings in the age of COVID and CRT.”
In recent months, board members across California have been subject to verbal and physical assaults, death threats, been forced to abandon meetings because of disruptions and have had to hire security in some instances. These tensions are due in large part to anger over state-imposed COVID-19 mitigation strategies like wearing masks and debates on ethnic studies and critical race theory.
“This isn’t just about a loss of civility or the fact that some board members feel unsafe — although that would be enough. The bigger problem is that the current environment is hindering the ability of boards to do what they’ve been elected to do: to serve our students,” Billy said. “Your mission to educate students is too important to be derailed by those who want to stop the work of boards, which is why it’s critical that boards develop techniques for effective community engagement and productive board meetings — even in this time of chaos.”
The webinar featured nine speakers including CSBA leadership, board members, attorneys and communications experts on preventing and handling unruly situations during board meetings.
Local leaders speak
Los Alamitos Unified School District trustee and CSBA Director Meg Cutuli recalled a contentious board meeting last spring when the district was approving a high school-level ethnic studies course after receiving requests from the community. Though it was merely an elective, upset members of the public threatened the board with recalls, name called and accused the board of supporting the instruction of critical race theory.
As individuals organized against the board on social media, things got so intense that law enforcement advised the board to hold at least one meeting virtually.
Cutuli noted that public comment is typically when meetings get the most out of control and a consistent policy is needed for managing this portion of the meeting.
“You need to be very consistent in the running of your board meetings. If you handle public comment the same way every time, eventually people will come to accept it,” she said. “After having problems at meetings, we decided we needed to take control and now read a statement before each time we have public comment.”
The board has also required public speakers to fill out a request card prior to the meeting. They have a maximum of three minutes each to speak and public comment is slotted for 30 minutes. Microphones are muted as needed and if there is a large number of speakers, the board will extend the period but shorten speakers’ individual times. Speakers cannot relinquish their time to someone else and the board makes sure the audience knows they cannot address items not on the agenda.
Setting expectations early “stops a lot of heckling from the crowd,” Cutuli said.
Rim of the World USD Trustee and CSBA Delegate Cindy Gardner said CSBA’s FAQs on ethnic studies and critical race theory are helping to aid local understanding of the issues. In this small district located in the San Bernardino mountains, however, use of masks is the current controversy.
Gardner reiterated the importance of taking a proactive approach to meeting management by setting expectations early. Having rules of decorum and public comment on the agenda and citing legal precedence can be helpful.
Her district publishes education pieces like press releases and spotlights on complex topics to aid in community understanding. Gardner noted that it’s important to share the good along with the serious, and her district highlights positive stories about schools and the district on social media and though other local media so the community is in the know.
Teri Vigil, trustee for Fall River USD and governance consultant at CSBA, covered why strong governance protocols help boards govern effectively, and are especially useful during a crisis.
“Though trustees run as individuals, they govern as a team. A strong governance team that abides by agreed-upon norms and protocols is better able to handle the pressures during crisis,” she said.
Vigil noted that strong teams stand behind their decisions, use a collective voice for messaging and recognize that the success of the group is a responsibility of each member.
Managing meetings and community messaging
The time for boards to step in is when commenters are disrupting the execution of business.
CSBA General Counsel and Chief of Staff Keith Bray spoke about the legal aspects of what do when disruption is occurring, including removing people and clearing the room, and defined ‘disruption.’
According to Bray, disruption has to be significant and based in how and when it’s expressed, not what opinion is expressed. It can include threats of harm along with speech that is irrelevant, repetitious or that goes on too long. It can also include conduct such a refusing to leave the podium, hateful or obscene gestures or not wearing a mask if required.
Some measures that can be taken to regain order include using the gavel to get attention and then warning a speaker or group of their disruptiveness and potential consequences, continuing an item to later on or to another meeting, and recessing or adjourning a meeting.
Jerry Gallagher, a partner at K-12 communications firm the Donovan Group, reiterated many of Gardner’s points on providing positive information to the public and Cutuli’s best practices in board meeting governance.
He presented a communication support sheet with tips for before, during and after meetings.
Prior to a meeting, he said reminding district staff and board members of the chain of command for communications on public concerns or complaints is important. After a meeting, circulating a press release with key messages for internal and external stakeholders gets everyone on the same page.
Dr. Naomi Bardach, team lead for California Safe Schools for All, gave an update on the status of COVID-19 in the state as well as lessons learned this back-to-school season that can be read on the CSBA blog.