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Chapter 2

Can We Talk?


 

2.1: Is it all right to call the superintendent?

You need to establish a productive working relationship with your superintendent. To do this, you need to talk to that individual. If you have questions, it is better to call the superintendent and discuss them before the board meeting rather than surprise the superintendent at a public meeting. If the questions are concerns or relate to negative feelings from the community, superintendents appreciate knowing about them in advance of the board meeting so they can come prepared to address them. It is appropriate to call the superintendent, set up a meeting to discuss questions, or send an email for simple questions or requests. When contacting the superintendent, it is important for a board member to keep the number and scope of such contacts within reason, to permit adequate time to receive a response, and to generally remain cognizant of the superintendents’ other responsibilities and the other demands on the their time.

2.2: If I disagree with board members or the superintendent, what is the best way to let them know how I feel?

Always treat your fellow board members, the superintendent and other administrators with respect. However, don’t be afraid to disagree on an issue. In fact, a discussion about an issue that reflects two or more views usually results in a better decision than if everyone agrees with the first solution offered. Be certain you debate the issue, not the person, and maintain decorum in debate. Demeaning comments or angry discussions do not facilitate effective decision making.

2.3: How do I approach my superintendent or board if I have a suggestion for a change?

If your suggestion needs to be discussed by the entire board and voted on, it should be added to an upcoming board agenda. Review your district policy on agenda setting to understand how to do this. Contact the superintendent or the board president to discuss your idea and have it either put on the agenda or referred to the appropriate committee for consideration.

2.4: Is it all right to talk to district administrators and staff?

In addition to the superintendent, you will come in contact with district employees, including administrators, teachers and other staff members. While there’s nothing wrong with talking to district staff, keep in mind that complaints should follow the chain of command. For example, teachers report to principals; principals report to the superintendent; the superintendent reports to the board. If you have a request for information, you should generally direct the request through the superintendent unless the superintendent or the board indicates otherwise. Keep in mind that individual board members generally do not have authority to direct the work of district staff members or demand that a staff member prioritize the board member’s requests over other work duties. In addition, district staff generally are not obligated to create new records or produce a new report or analysis in response to interest that has been expressed only by an individual board member. Directing requests through the superintendent can assist with appropriate prioritization, identifying information that may be readily available, and determining when it may be appropriate to have the full board weigh in regarding certain requests and project ideas.

In addition, individual board members may request and obtain records, statistics and reports, as directed by the board, as required by their office (i.e. president, clerk or treasurer), as available to them as a parent/guardian, or as available to them pursuant to a public records or directory data request.

2.5: Can I talk to board members outside the board meeting?

All board members have an obligation to ensure they do not violate the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law when participating in activities that pertain to school-related business. Board members must also be careful to avoid creating a walking quorum, which is defined by the Wisconsin Attorney General  as:

  • Any series of communications among members of the board;
  • Who agree, tacitly or explicitly, to act uniformly; and
  • In sufficient number to determine the board’s course of action on any matter.

(See additional Open Meetings Law Resources including electronic communications (or other technology-facilitated activities) on the WASB website.)

“The essential feature of a ‘walking quorum’ is the element of agreement among members of a body to act uniformly in sufficient numbers to reach a quorum. Responding to a scheduling matter regarding one’s availability for a board meeting will not create a walking quorum.  Also, merely expressing one’s support for the inclusion of a proposed agenda item or for holding a special meeting will not create a walking quorum provided that the board members have not engaged in substantive discussion or agreed on a course of action regarding the proposed subject matter. ​Where there is no such express or tacit agreement, exchanges among separate groups of members may take place without violating the Open Meetings Law. The signing, by members of a body, of a document asking that a subject be placed on the agenda of an upcoming meeting thus does not constitute a ‘walking quorum’ where the signers have not engaged in substantive discussion or agreed on a uniform course of action regarding the proposed subject. In contrast, where a majority of members of a body sign a document that expressly commits them to a future course of action, a court could find a walking quorum violation.” (See Wisconsin Open Meetings Law Compliance Guide.)

2.6: What can I say, or not say, to parents and friends about school issues?

School board business that is discussed in closed session or relates to confidential matters (such as an employee personnel or student discipline issue) should never be discussed with anyone other than another board member or the superintendent. A good rule of thumb is to discuss only items that have been made public at a school board meeting. Adhering to this rule of thumb will go a long way in maintaining trust with the superintendent and the other board members and protecting staff and the public.

2.7: What information is considered confidential? When can a closed session of the board be held?

Many employee personnel issues and most information contained in student educational records are considered confidential and not subject to disclosure. Also, the information discussed in a closed board meeting is most likely confidential.

A school board is expected to conduct all its business in open session, unless a statutory exemption allowing the board to convene in closed session applies. The appropriateness of scheduling a closed session meeting of the board should be judged based on an analysis of each item of business proposed for the closed session. A closed session may be held only if the reason for such a session falls within one of the specific exemptions outlined in section 19.85(1) of the state statutes.  

In order for a school board to convene in closed session, a motion must first be made in open session and carried by a majority vote of the board in such a manner that the votes of each member are ascertained and recorded in the minutes. The chief presiding officer is required to announce to those present at the meeting the nature of the business to be considered in closed session and the specific statutory exemption(s) authorizing the closed session. The meeting notice and the presiding officer’s announcement should describe the specific subject matter that is proposed for consideration in the closed session. Merely identifying the number of the applicable statutory section(s) and quoting the language of the entire exemption is unlikely to be adequate. The minutes must reflect this announcement. No business may be taken up at any closed session except that which relates to matters contained in the chief presiding officer’s announcement of the closed session.

One of the main purposes of the announcement and motion requirements for convening in closed session is to ensure that each board member who is present at the meeting makes an informed decision as to whether to support the motion and/or whether to attend and participate in the closed session. This is important because a member of a governmental body may be subject to a forfeiture for violations of the Open Meetings Law.

However, members of a governmental body are not liable under the Open Meetings Law on account of their attendance at a meeting held in violation of the Open Meetings Law if they make or vote in favor of a motion to prevent the violation from occurring, or if, before the violation occurs, their votes on all relevant motions were inconsistent with all those circumstances which cause the violation.

Also, note that an intent to reconvene in open session within 12 hours after a closed session must be noticed at the same time and in the same manner as notice of the meeting convened prior to the closed session. (See section 19.85(2) of the state statutes.)

In general, the Open Meetings Law gives wide discretion to a school board to admit into a closed session anyone whose presence the board determines is necessary for the consideration of the matter that is the subject of the meeting.

2.8: I have children in school. How can I talk with their teachers now that I'm on the school board?

This can be a tricky area. No matter what you say about “speaking as a parent, not a board member,” it may be difficult for some teachers to separate your role on the school board from your role as a parent. It’s not surprising that some teachers may be somewhat intimidated by your role as a board member. Some married board members have indicated that their spouses frequently take the lead in speaking to their children’s teachers.

Make sure you’re not using your position as a school board member to secure special treatment for your child. Your child should be treated the same as other students and be subject to the same rules and requirements. If there are issues you wish to discuss with a teacher, you should follow the normal procedures for contacting your child’s teacher to discuss them.

Keep in mind that you do not relinquish your parental rights now that you’re a school board member. You are always a parent first and a board member second.

2.9: As a board member, may I visit the schools?

You have the same right as a parent or community member to visit the schools in your district as long as you follow whatever procedures your district has for visitors. As a school board member, you may also visit the schools in an official capacity with the board’s authority or to fulfill a specific duty required of you as a board officer.

As a school board member, you should use school visits to build good working relations with building principals and staff, to celebrate the positive accomplishments of the schools, and to show your pride as a member of the board. Look for opportunities to visit when a school is hosting a special event or recognition program for students and staff. In any event, be sure to tell the superintendent and/or principal in advance of your visit.

For individual requests to visit schools that were not approved or directed by the board as a whole, an individual board member should be sure to remain respectful of the administration’s judgment regarding possible disruption and the most appropriate times and settings for board member visits. In addition, board members need to be sure that their purpose in conducting a school visit is appropriate. For example, seeking to visit a classroom to personally evaluate a teacher’s job performance after hearing a complaint is not the role of an individual board member.

2.10: How do I respond to a community that questions the school board's decisions?

It’s normal to hear questions about the board’s decisions. You will at times find yourself dealing with controversial, complex issues, and the board’s final decisions may be unpopular. Explain the thought process that went into the decision and why the board arrived at the conclusion it did, even if you personally disagreed. Be sure to answer honestly and in a straightforward manner. One of your roles as a school board member is to be an advocate for the district. Being asked about board decisions provides an opportunity to promote the positive activities that are occurring in your schools while at the same time responding to community questions.

2.11: How do I respond to questions from the media?

Your board has probably already adopted, at least informally, a policy for responding to the media.

Individual board members should be free to explain their votes or comments they may have made at a public meeting. If you are contacted by a local reporter and you’re not prepared or don’t have the relevant information, don’t say, “No comment.” Instead, tell the reporter you’ll get an answer and get back to them or refer the reporter to the appropriate person in the organization who can respond to the reporter’s questions. Ask what kind of deadline they have, and then promptly follow through.

In all situations, be honest — never lie! Talk in plain English, in short, quotable sentences, but stay on message. Answer the question that was asked if you can. Don’t feel compelled to offer more information than needed to answer the question. Be friendly and warm. If you are on camera, remember that body language is as important as what you say.

When individual board members interact with the media or make other public statements about school-related matters, it is often important to expressly clarify that they are speaking only as individual board members and not on behalf of the entire board or on behalf of the school district. Also, with respect to some issues, it is not unusual for individual board members to be advised, or to conclude on their own, that commenting as an individual board member would be inappropriate or premature. In such situations, a board member may instead defer to a designated district spokesperson or emphasize that they intend to work with the leadership team as appropriate to address the specific issue.

Particularly on issues of great sensitivity or in response to a crisis, a single spokesperson — usually the board president or superintendent — should be designated to speak for the board and the district respectively in order to ensure that accurate information is provided and there are no conflicting messages. Be aware of federal student privacy laws as well to ensure that no confidential information is released.

If the media is waiting to do an interview following a board meeting, it is appropriate to refer the question to the president or the superintendent.

2.12: How should I respond to parental or staff complaints?

First, be familiar with your board policy on public complaints. The best way to respond to parental complaints is to be a good listener and be familiar with the district’s chain-of-command protocols. This allows you to ask questions to understand the situation better. Be careful, though, that the parent or staff person does not interpret your questions or comments as an indication of future board action.

Once parents or staff persons have shared their complaints with you, try to give them guidance on how to get their concerns addressed through proper channels, perhaps by referring them to the applicable person in the school district or to the appropriate complaint policy.

It’s safe to say that most of the complaints you’ll hear are administrative in nature and not policy issues. As such, they don’t belong on the board’s table. It is not your responsibility to solve each parent’s or staff person’s problem. By all means listen to them, but then make sure they know to contact the school staff to have their concerns addressed. You owe the superintendent and staff the opportunity to respond and to support them if they are properly following board policy.

2.13: Can I use email or social media to communicate with my board colleagues?

The Wisconsin Attorney General’s Office strongly discourages the members of every governmental body from using electronic mail to communicate with each other about issues within the body’s realm of authority except for procedural elements relating to creating the agenda or establishing meeting dates and locations (see question 2:5).

That being said, school board members may use email to communicate with each other if they are not using it to discuss board business or influence votes on issues in advance of a meeting or as a means of avoiding Open Meetings Law requirements. The same holds true with social media, such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.

Also, it can be important to differentiate between using email as an efficient method of delivering a one-way communication of information to all board members versus using email to conduct an electronic conversation or discussion that involves multiple board members and a substantive topic of board or district business. The former is much less of a concern than the latter. It is not uncommon for a superintendent or board president to use email to provide all board members with notice of an important matter or to convey a useful resource or other background information — often expressly cautioning the recipients not to “reply all” or otherwise start an electronic discussion.

It is also generally permissible for one board member to email or “direct message” another board member with a question or with a response to such a question. However, even such one-to-one communications can create record management issues, and the members of small school boards or committees (e.g., with only three or five members) must take special care to evaluate whether they could potentially be creating a quorum or negative quorum through such communications. A negative quorum means enough board members to defeat a particular action. As previously mentioned, all school board members must avoid contributing to a series of sequential communications that may constitute a walking quorum.

Aside from possible violations of the Open Meetings Law, electronic conversations that involve multiple board members and that address substantive topics of board business may sometimes be criticized as secretive or nontransparent practices. This is because such communications are likely to affect the board’s discussion at the meeting and can preclude the community from hearing the board debate important issues.

Be forewarned, if you are using a school email address, essentially all of the emails within the account can be requested by the public or media under the Public Records Law (additional WASB resources are available on the Public Records Law). If you are using a private email address for school related matters, all emails related to school business can be requested under the Public Records Law, even if such emails are contained on a private network or server.

Because school district email systems are generally structured to facilitate compliance with the Public Records Law, most school board members will want to be in the habit of using a district-issued email account for all of their board-related email communications. And, if a board member receives an email at a personal or work-related email address, a recommended practice is to forward the email to the board member’s school district email account and respond, if necessary, from the district account.

As further addressed in the resources listed herein, the public records issues related to email extend to other types of electronic records as well (such as social media posts, text messages, etc.). Please note that your other online communications may also become public as well, even with privacy settings set to “friends only.” If you don’t want your conversations and comments to become front-page fodder, don’t have them online.

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