|Get on board
Author: Jennifer VanBuren
School board meetings are usually flooded with public input when discussing the budget, program cuts or boundary issues. However, if you have other concerns not settled at the school level, you may find presenting your issue to the school board a must for finding an adequate solution.
Little Joey comes home and whimpers, “I haven’t been out for recess in two weeks. And it’s only 10 minutes now anyway.” You are appalled. What is your first step? Get the teacher’s side of the story and give her your reaction. If this does not work, move up to the principal. If he sticks with the policy that even the inadequate recess time is fair game, are you prepared to move up the chain of command?
Take a deep breath; you are not alone. You can make phone calls, write emails or set an appointment with individual board members, but most likely, you are going to wind up the speaking to the board.
• Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most persuasive public speaker of them all? You are, of course! One of the best ways to overcome fear of public speaking is to be prepared. Write-out your speech and practice speaking clearly in front of a mirror. Time yourself reading aloud to make sure you do not go over your time limit.
• Know the facts. Talk to other parents, teachers and administrators before heading to a school board meeting. If you are going purely on gossip or on a report from your eight-year-old, you may look foolish and lose credibility.
• Identify specific examples of how your child is affected and be ready to make them known. If cuts to special education staff will mean your son will not be included in general education, make sure you bring up the legal implications of such decisions. Board members may not be aware of what is happening at individual campuses.
While it is important to make a personal plea, it is always more effective to find evidence-based research to back it up.
What to expect
• The board will provide time during the discussion of each agenda item for members of the public to comment. Members of the public may also address the board on an item not on the agenda. Board members will not normally respond directly to the comments, but speakers are assured that their comments are very important and will be addressed in a different forum.
• Specific formats vary by school district, but in general, the meetings are run pretty much the same. It is recommended that you attend a meeting before you address the board to see how things are done.
• When you arrive, there will usually be a table outside the meeting room. There may be copies of the agenda, a sign-in sheet and a stack of “citizens request to speak” forms. On this paper, you may be asked to fill in your name, address, affiliation and a brief description of the topic on which you wish to speak. There may be a person manning the table who can tell you where to drop this form.
If not, the standard procedure is to leave it with the board secretary before the meeting starts.
• When it is your turn to address the school board, the superintendent will call your name. You will have two or three minutes to express your opinions or share your concerns. While you are being heard and your input valued, it is unlikely that you will be given a direct response. The purpose of this portion of the meeting is to gather information from the community.
Check your tone
• A board meeting is not the time for drama, wit or sarcasm. You may think you are hilarious, but save your jokes for happy hour. Be professional, polite and respectful. You are speaking to a board of volunteers dedicated to the education of the children in your community, it is very likely they share your frustration and have already spent hours trying to find a resolution. Yelling or making accusations will get you nowhere. If you make a bad first impression, it will be more difficult to work with them in the future.
• Prepare a written copy of your speech and take it along with you, but try not to use it. Make as much eye contact with the board members and the superintendent as possible.
• Keep it short. Don’t use all of your time just because you can, especially if you are going as a group. Repeating yourself or telling long step-by-step accounts is frankly boring and ineffective. If you can say it in two minutes, the board will be just as receptive. If you are one of many speaking to a single topic, try not to be repetitive. Be respectful of everyone’s time. Bring copies of your speech, supporting documents and your contact information so that board members can easily follow up.
Use inflection and volume to communicate the importance of your issue. Speak slowly and into the microphone. Make sure you look up when you first introduce yourself to be sure your voice is transmitting.
Safety in numbers
• Your concern most likely affects many other children other than your own; try to rally others to join you. It may be wise to decide ahead of time to divide up the main points of your argument. For example, you are concerned that not only has your school cut daily P.E., but recess time has been cut to 10 minutes a day and children are regularly pulled out as punishment.
• Here is an example of how parents can divide up the main arguments for why P.E. and recess are academically, socially and physically important to all children. Each parent can speak to how his or her individual child is specifically affected by the school policy and then give one piece of evidence that supports that position. For example: Mr. Jones introduces himself as the father of Amanda, a second grader. He gives a short description of how she is affected by the cut in recess and P.E. time. He then cites the American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement and hands the board a copy of their position.
• Mrs. Davilla then steps up with a brief description of how her daughter is affected by the policy and presents research that finds children with more active play during their school day actually perform better on academic tasks.
• Dr. Martin speaks of his son who is being punished with recess detention for behaviors that are related to his disability. He cites research that correlates physical activity with a decrease in disruptive behavior and increased ability to concentrate on assigned tasks.
You might even consider going to a board meeting just to briefly share your child’s positive educational experiences. That way, you will have experience at the microphone and you will be identified as a citizen who is truly invested. The rare face of a pleased parent is something the board will always remember.
Jennifer VanBuren, educator and mother of three, still gets nervous when she speaks at a board meeting.