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8 Essays: What's Wrong With School Board Meetings—And Why They Need to Change

Geneva's School Board needs more discussion, disagreement and opportunity for public comment before a vote.

The June 25 School Board meeting was one of the best I've ever seen—for at least three reasons.

The first is that School Board members actually talked through an issue in the public forum of a board meeting. So often, motions are made, seconded and passed after maybe a question or two from board members to staff or a brief explanation by School Board President Mark Grosso.

Thank goodness for Grosso, by the way, because his commentary is often the only information presented by the board during a meeting.

The big issue on June 25 was a kindergarten enrollment bubble at and Williamsburg elementary schools that requires a short-term as well as a long-term solution. Some great ideas and excellent conversation took the board away from its usual rubber stamp of the staff recommendation. Well done.

A second reason to applaud the board meeting was that we saw a very rare split vote. The board voted 4-3 to approve technology purchases for a pilot program at the high school. This might have been the first 4-3 split I've seen in the several months I've been covering the meetings rather than the City Council Committee of the Whole meeting, which takes place in the same time 7 p.m. Monday time slot.

Third, the public comment portions of the meeting—which take place first thing after the pledge of allegiance and then after the board action has been taken—was rich with wide and varying opinions. It wasn't just "the usual suspects," aka members of the Geneva TaxFACTS citizens group.

But as good as that meeting was, it has the potential to be so much better.

Here are some suggestions:

(1) Have more conversation from School Board members.

It's not necessary for every board member to say why he or she is voting in favor of or against every motion. But it should happen more often than it does. Without that, the votes have the appearance of being pre-ordained.

(2) After a motion is made and board members have spoken their minds, the floor should be opened to public comment—before a vote is taken.

That gives the members of the public a chance to feel as if they are being heard before a decision is made. As it stands, there is public comment before the topic comes up and public comment after the votes are cast.

I've seen council meetings in which public comment has affected the final decision. I've also seen cases in which the council votes against the prevailing sentiment in the room. But open meetings are "open" for a reason, and members of the public often have a greater respect for government when they have a chance to speak within the context of the pre-vote discussion.

(3) Pull more items off the consent agenda.

If there's an expenditure of more than $50,000, the item probably shouldn't be on the consent agenda—unless it's been discussed at length and in the open at a previous School Board meeting.

(3) Hold School Board meetings once a week.

If the board feels there's just not enough time for public comment, meet once a week instead of twice a month. A Committee of the Whole forum would allow more time for dialogue, as well as awards and presentations.

(4) Move School Board meetings to Tuesdays.

The Geneva City Council holds its meetings at 7 p.m. Mondays. Anyone who wants to attend both the School Board and City Council COW meetings has to decide between the two.

(5) Don't go into executive session after every board meeting—and when you do, say why.

It happens every meeting, with no exception that I've seen, so far. The board adjourns to executive session under a blanket statement for any and all action. The board should say whether it's discussing litigation, appointment or discipline of an employee or collective bargaining matters.

The board president also should say whether action is expected after the session.

Fred Cregier July 11, 2012 at 05:38 PM
Well said Rick! I agree that this would eventually minimize the unnecessary antagonism which too often occurs at Board meetngs, and hopefully our fellow citizens on the Board might actually see and absorb some good ideas from the public. When genuine listening is done, over time, attitudes often soften and learning for the good of the community can actually occur. Keep on plugging for this! Fred Cregier
Bob McQuillan July 11, 2012 at 05:40 PM
Rick As usual, your points are right on topic. That is because you attend school board meetings on a regular basis. I think most that have attended more than a handful of meetings would agree with your points. Except maybe the meeting once per week. Board members and audience members aren't paid to attend meetings and going every week is a bit much. That, in my opinion, might lead to audience members staying home and watching on video. We actually need more people to attend in person not less. Your ideas though are a complete change in philosophy for the board of education. The current philosophy is that it is their business meeting and the public is invited as their guests. They go further and say that they don't need to respond to any public comment. I have heard this philosophy quoted many times in the past. I will agree that since Mark Grosso has become president, things seem to be changing for the better. Board members need to be audience friendly and steps toward that have been made with posting the agenda & board packet prior to the meetings. I finish with another comment but readers, especially Lamont Cranston, don't need to worry about my boss - I'm writing this on my lunch hour.
Bob McQuillan July 11, 2012 at 05:53 PM
I would suggest a few other changes: 1. administrators don't answer a question with the response, "I don't have that information with me." Your district issued computer is right in front of you and there is internet service at Coultrap. Look up the information and answer the question before the end of the meeting. This adds to district transparency. 2. discussions between board members & administrators between meetings should be shared with the public prior to the next meeting. Many times board members say they asked questions and received answers outside the meeting. This is not good policy. A running list of those questions and answers should be kept and placed as part of the board packet for the next meeting. Maybe the public has the same question and it has already been answered. It also shows that board members research issues and ask questions. Not sharing answers with the public makes it appear no discussion has taken place. 3. all presentations should include both sides of an issue. Everything within the district isn't peaches & cream so don't make it sound like it is. The warts need to be exposed so that solutions can be developed. 4. every board member doesn't need to thank everyone who makes a presentation. Presenting information to the board is part of staff's job and it is expected that they do a good job. They usually do a good job so for someone to always thank the staff for doing what is expected is redundant and unnecessary.
Chris B July 11, 2012 at 06:33 PM
I agree with you, Rick. The June 25 meeting was the best I had seen. I really liked hearing the open discussion among the board members. Mark Grosso has done a good job and has made some positive changes. The improvements you suggested would make it even better.
Dwight Swartwood July 11, 2012 at 09:35 PM
Good progress.

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