Several trustees from school districts around Madison County met in Ennis on Monday night for a countywide school board meeting that focused on the roles and duties of school board members.
Bob Vogel, Director of Government Relations for the Montana School Boards Association, and Ennis School District attorney Elizabeth Kaleva led the discussion stemming from the subject of individual versus collective authority of a school board. Vogel explained that his time with MTSBA, as well as a former school board member in Helena, has taught him that school districts function most efficiently when in the hands of the board of trustees.
“The trustees of the districts have supervision and control over the affairs of the school district, and I think that’s the way it should be from my experience in seeing what happens at the state and federal level,” he said.
The state provides a strict framework for school districts to operate, Vogel continued, and following that framework provides the greatest opportunity for members of the community to be involved in the decision-making process.
“One of the key concepts is that you have to operate collectively as a board, not as individual members,” Vogel said. “You have to try to operate a school district in a way that doesn’t raise the ire of either your local community or the state as a whole, to the point where they get to question whether local control is working the way it should.”
Vogel discussed the many duties of the board, such as putting policy in place, hiring and maintaining a superintendent and adopting a budget that makes sense. One of the primary focuses of any school district should be the needs of the students and the goals the board must set in order to accomplish that.
“The biggest challenge I’ve seen is for a board collectively to stay focused on what’s best for students and the challenges ahead for successful students coming up,” he said.
Meeting those challenges is easier said than done, Vogel explained, adding that it can often be a moving target.
“How do we prepare our students to be successful members of society, whether it’s in our community, a neighboring community, the state of Montana or somewhere else?” he asked.
Kaleva offered some critical advice on how school boards should operate in a transparent manner. It is critical for trustees to adhere to the state’s open meeting laws because when they do they benefit from a certain level of immunity as a member of the school board. Other keys to success for an efficient school board are publishing a clear and specific agenda for meetings, so the community is made aware of what the board discusses and any action they may take.
Another critical opportunity that both Kaleva and Vogel discussed is the value and importance of having a specific procedure for taking public comment. The best thing a school board can do on any matter is take public comment early and often, Vogel said.
Board meetings have a period for public comment before any final action is taken, as well as a general comment period for any public matter not on the agenda excluding personnel issues. Districts may enforce a time allotment limiting how long a member of the public may speak for, but that limit may be suspended prior to meetings pending the boards approval and meetings may also be suspended if comments or discussion points from the public become inappropriate.
“Take as much public comment as you can,” Kaleva said. “There is nothing wrong with listening to what people want to say.”