School boards must consider weighty issues with long-term consequences even as public discourse at the meetings has grown more heated and more politicized.
As Education Week reported Wednesday, those divisive topics have led some school boards to limit sometimes lengthy public comment time in favor of expediency.
That’s an unfortunate choice, said Jonathan Collins, an assistant professor of political science at Brown University who studies school boards’ relationships with constituents.
“Closing opportunities for accountability and transparency creates these domino effects,” he said, including making it harder to tailor policy to community needs.
Collins offered ideas for how boards can change routines to build trust with parents.
While these strategies may not silence the loudest critics, they will ensure more parents and members of the public feel welcome at the decision-making table, he said.
1. Move meetings to a more familiar venue.
Getting more parents involved may be as simple as moving school board meetings from the central office to their neighborhood school’s gym or cafeteria.
Getting the public—satisfied with their schools or not—to participate in discussions means addressing the barriers that keep them away, Collins said.
For one, formal public meetings can be intimidating and inaccessible. School boards should consider holding occasional meetings and listening sessions at school sites, which are more familiar venues for parents, Collins said.
Some districts have also sought to make meetings more accessible by broadcasting them online and accepting virtual public comments.
The good news: While divisions over education policy have increasingly made their way into the front of polarizing national political debates, public opinion polling still shows that many people support their own districts.
An annual poll released in August by PDK International showed continued strong faith in local public schools, with 54 percent of respondents grading their community’s schools as an A or B and 45 percent rating their schools C, D, or “fail.” That is the highest percentage of A or B ratings in the 48-year history of the poll and a 10 percentage point increase from 2019.
2. Conduct deliberative discussions.
School boards shouldn’t just silently listen to public comments at monthly meetings and move on without presenting responses, Collins said.
Instead, they should seek ways to hold occasional two-way discussions and collaborative workshops that involve educators, students, parents, and residents of their districts. Unlike formal meetings, those events present opportunities for members of the public to break into small groups and discuss solutions.
In Collins’ research, summarized in a 2021 study, he showed video clips of school board meetings to a pool of people and surveyed them about their reactions.
He found that people who viewed discussions that included both public participation and responses from board members were more likely to show “increased trust in local officials and a stronger willingness to attend school board meetings in the future” than participants who viewed videos of meetings with no public participation, or with public participation that did not get a response from the board.
3. Be clear about how public feedback will inform decision making.
Feedback and discussion can’t be for show, Collins said. Constituents are more willing to participate in the future if they understand how their ideas will be used to inform decisions.
The focus needs to be practical, rather than pie-in-the-sky, he noted.
A common form of open discussion for school board members comes through community design sessions, typically held by consultants to help design new school building plans. But too often, such discussions lead to a lot of excited dreaming that is unlikely to be included in the eventual formal plans.
“People come to these workshops and they talk to other people,” Collins said. “They get colorful markers and write on big white papers, but it’s hard to see how the things they say in that moment contribute to what they will eventually see.”
To truly benefit from participating, members of the public should know how their input will be collected, how their priorities will be represented in discussions and reported out to interested parties, and opportunities for future follow-up, Collins said.
Districts have used community workshops built on this model to seek input on COVID-19 academic recovery strategies, to design social-emotional learning approaches, and even to review student achievement data in an accessible way.
Boards need to be able to say, “Here’s what you told us. Here’s what we are going to do with it next. And here’s how this idea has morphed and shifted in response to what you are saying,” Collins said.