Education group details school board agendas, legal rules

Jarek RutzEducation, Headlines

First State Educate's latest webinar focused on school board agendas. (Photo by redkphotohobby/Adobe Stock)

First State Educate’s latest webinar focused on school board agendas. (Photo by redkphotohobby/Adobe Stock)

Delaware school boards operate under many rules, including having public meetings that have been advertised in advance to comply with state Freedom of Information requirements.

That was one of the details that came up during a  First State Educate webinar Monday night  focused on how school board agendas work, the legal requirements of boards, the importance of communication and more.

It was the second in a series organized by the Delaware educational advocacy group. One of its goals is to encourage more people to run for and sit on school boards. Another is to increase parental involvement in schools.

The series is designed to help demystify how school boards operate.

 RELATED: FSE says parents need to engage in their kids’ education

“A school board agenda is like the blueprint for a school board meeting,” said Yvonne Johnson, school board consultant for First State Educate. “It outlines what’s going to happen from start to finish.”

That typically includes recognition, the pledge of allegiance, swearing in board members or other staff, accepting donations from an outside source, policy updates, voting on policies, updates on district committees, a superintendent’s report on district happenings and more.

Johnson then spoke on some of the legal requirements of districts, which is timely given the recent news of the Department of Justice’s plans to monitor the meetings of the Christina School District, the second largest district in the state, for one year. 

RELATED: Dept. of Justice to monitor Christina SD Board for 1 year 

The detail was outlined in the epilogue language of the General Assembly’s grants-in-aid bill, which details the state’s investments in government agencies and nonprofits like senior centers, veterans organizations and fire companies, for example.

The main reason for the move is to make sure Christina is complying correctly with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

“According to our Freedom of Information Act and our public policies in our state, it is a law that these meetings have to be held in public,” Johnson said. “That’s why, sometimes, when people come to meetings, they want to ask a question or raise their hand or scream out, which, trust me, I’ve done, but you’re not allowed to, they will not respond because it is their meeting, but they have to hold it in public.”

Most districts also have a policy that states they must operate aligned with Robert’s Rules of Order, which is a longstanding method of parliamentary procedure. 

Johnson pointed out that all votes, even personnel votes, must happen in public. 

“Now, if it’s a personnel matter, they will put on the agenda voting under ‘personnel matter’, but they don’t say the name,” she said. “They might refer to a number or something like this, but they cannot say anything about anybody personally, even if it’s a contract.”

She said that there are school boards that sometimes will hold voted behind the scenes, but that is not legal. 

“So the purpose of having the school board agenda is so that there is structure and organization,” she said. 

School districts must also post notices to upcoming school board meetings, at least seven business days prior. The postings are usually in a newspaper, district website, district social media accounts and/or flyers on the entryways of district buildings. 

“The school board should be working together, collaborating to make sure that agenda is smooth, that there are reasons for having those items on the agenda,” Johnson said. 

The webinar was interactive, and Johnson asked the audience questions concerning what they know about agendas, what topics should be prioritized, what elements of education drive the agenda and more. 

There’s some nuance to the legal requirements, however.

“Some school districts don’t have a quorum at their school board planning meetings, and so they might not publicize it, they get away with it, which they should all be public,” Johnson said. 

For example, she said, if a school board has seven members, four constitutes a quorum. So if three board members want to go to Panera for coffee, they can do that, but if a fourth member shows up, it means it’s a quorum and they legally have to publish a public notice.

The district superintendent in every district is also considered the board secretary, so Johnson said it’s important for that person to set the tone for the agenda and have a good, transparent relationship with the community. 

Johnson pointed out that it’s not always easy to navigate the agenda for parents.

District websites have a tab for school board information. Somewhere in there, there is a link to BoardDocs, which is a third-party system most districts use as a one-stop-shop with past meeting minutes and recordings, upcoming agendas, documents, powerpoint presentations and more. 

Agendas or district websites will have a Zoom/livestream link as well for people to tune in virtually. 

Johnson also said that if a community member wants something to be added to the agenda, it’s important to be active and interact with board members, and if it’s something that will take time, like data collection, they should ask for that agenda item to be added way before the meeting date to give district staff time to compile the data.

“I have received many, many, many emails from frustrated constituents and parents and community members that they’re not getting the appropriate response from district personnel, so they send it to the board members, and then we just put it back on superintendent,” said Vic Leonard, a school board member in the Red Clay Consolidated School District and the second speaker in the webinar. 

RELATED: First State Educate details problems, solutions to education

He said he’s had a few community meetings with his constituents, to allow him to learn their concerns and give them a platform to speak up.

“There are some board members who’ve been on this board for 28 years, another for 15 years, and they have become accustomed to not doing much as far as moving forward or being progressive about things as some of the younger members on the board who are newly elected,” Leonard said. 

He said that status quo is not the answer, and hearing from community members allows the board to reshape the direction the district goes in.

First State Educate has two more webinars scheduled: Thursday, Aug. 15 at 5 p.m. to discuss effectively speaking at a school board meeting, and Tuesday, Sept. 10 at 5 p.m. to discuss how to understand student achievement data. 

Register for them both here

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