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Chapter 3

Time for Meetings


3:1 What should I expect at my first board meeting?

If you have never participated in a board meeting, you may be overwhelmed at first. There are basic rules of parliamentary procedure that should be followed, but each board operates in its own way. Ask for an orientation if one isn’t scheduled.

There will be a meeting agenda and protocol. Talk with the board president before attending your first meeting to ask basic questions such as:

  • Where should I sit?
  • How is the agenda set up?
  • How long do the meetings usually take?
  • When should I speak?

You should also receive your board packet containing the agenda and any supporting information several days before the meeting although sometimes items are added to the agenda 24 hours or more prior to the meeting if a specific need necessitates such an addition. Be sure to go through the material carefully and take the time to call the superintendent or board president to ask questions about anything you don’t understand.

Remember, this is a meeting of the school board. Staff and community members are invited to attend and participate either through a public comment period or as posted on your agenda. But this is your board’s opportunity to conduct business. As such, the board should remain in control of the meeting at all times.

3:2 Where should I sit?

Many boards have their rooms set up in a consistent configuration for board meetings with name plates for each person at the table. Some boards have assigned seats that do not change from meeting to meeting. Other boards mix the seats up each time. And others do not have name tags or assigned seats and may alter the meeting room configuration depending upon the focus of the meeting.

To feel comfortable prior to attending your first meeting, you may want to contact the board president and ask if there are any “traditions” that you should know about in advance of the meeting, including where you should sit.

3:3 What is considered an acceptable dress code at board meetings?

Your board decides how formal or informal the meeting should be. A good rule of thumb, though, is to dress appropriately for a business meeting, as board meetings are business meetings. Remember also that the public may attend as well as the media. Your dress should reflect the professional approach that your school board takes in overseeing the operations of the school.

3:4 How does being on TV or having your meeting live streamed affect board members?

Any time you are being filmed or are in the public eye, it is normal to be more self-conscious and nervous. Some, but not all, boards broadcast live or tape their meetings for later broadcast on a local cable access station or through the district’s website. Naturally, the first time you participate in a recorded or televised board meeting you may find that you are less articulate and forget some of what you want to say. After you attend a few meetings, though, you should become comfortable and even forget the camera is on. Periodically reviewing the video recording to see how the board is presenting itself is a good idea. Board members are often surprised by their unconscious body language that may or may not accurately communicate their feelings.

3:5 How professionally must a board meeting be run? What is considered too lax or too formal?

All board meetings need to follow some set of “rules of order,” often based on parliamentary procedure. The method that your board selects should be identified in a policy. Some boards elect to follow Robert’s Rules of Order (as it applies to the meetings of small bodies, rather than large assemblies) while others prefer a more basic version of parliamentary procedure. Your school board can generally be as relaxed or as formal as it chooses (e.g., in the method used to conduct discussion at a meeting, as to whether the board requires motions to be seconded, etc.) as long as the board’s meeting procedures are consistent with the board’s own policies and with any applicable legal requirements. For example, a board’s rules of order and other meeting procedures must not violate the requirements of the Open Meetings Law. In addition, state law requires school boards to capture certain information about their motions, resolutions and votes in the minutes and written proceedings of their meetings.

To further illustrate the point that any local rules of order must yield to the requirements of state law, there are several instances where state law establishes a special voting requirement for the board to take particular actions. Normally, a school board can approve a motion or take other official action if the action is approved by a standard majority vote. When at least a quorum of the board is present and participates in the vote, a standard majority means a majority of the actual votes that were cast. Examples of special statutory voting requirements that deviate from the normal rule can be found in section 118.22(2) of the state statutes (requiring a majority vote of the full membership of the school board to employ or dismiss a teacher who holds a contract under that statute) and in section 65.90(5)(a)(ar) (requiring a two-thirds vote of the entire membership of the board to change the appropriations stated in the approved annual district budget). Boards must be careful to observe all such special voting requirements.

As a final example, because the school board president is, first and foremost, an elected member of the school board, the board president has the same voting rights and duties as all other board members, notwithstanding that under some applications of Robert’s Rules of Order the presiding officer of a meeting would only vote in the case of a tie.

3:6 How often does my board meet?

School boards are required to hold a regular board meeting at least once each month at a time and place determined by the school board, according to sections 120.11(1) and 120.43(2) of the state statutes. School boards may choose to have more than one regular board meeting each month as a matter of local policy or by any decision of the board.

Aside from the meetings that are approved or scheduled by a policy or other decision of the school board, state law also establishes procedures for calling additional, special meetings of the board. The procedures for calling a special meeting are different for different types of school districts. In common and union high school districts, the procedures are found in section 120.11(2) of the state statutes. In unified districts, the procedures are set forth in section 120.43(2). Contact your district’s superintendent or board president if you have questions about holding special meetings in your district.

3:7 What are the legal requirements for school board meetings?

School boards must meet in compliance with the Open Meetings Law and make public records available consistent with the Public Records Law. Basically, the Open Meetings Law requires that all school board meetings, including most committee meetings, be open and accessible to the public. Proper notice must be given to announce regularly scheduled meetings as well as special meetings. Minutes of the meetings must be taken and include specific information required by state law.

3:8 What is the Open Meetings Law premised upon?

In recognition of the fact that a representative government of the American type is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the policy of this state that the public is entitled to the fullest and most complete information regarding the affairs of government as is compatible with the conduct of governmental business. (See section 19.81(1) of the state statutes.)

An understanding of the basics of the Open Meetings Law is necessary in order to be an effective school board member.

3:9 How many board members can get together outside of a noticed meeting and discuss a school district issue or an upcoming agenda item without violating the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law?

This question implicates what is known as the “numbers test” for determining whether a “meeting” is occurring for purposes of the Open Meetings Law. The general rule of thumb is that participation in such a discussion is limited to a group that is less than the number of board members that could determine the outcome of a board decision that is related to whatever topic is discussed (even if there are currently no specific plans to make any decisions on the topic). In some situations, this will be less than a quorum or majority of the board, such as when less than the full membership of the board will be voting on a matter (e.g., due to an unfilled vacancy) or when a decision requires a two-thirds vote of the board in order to pass.

In practical terms, this means that the larger the total membership of the school board (e.g., 7, 9, or 11 members) the greater the freedom that any two board members generally have to discuss a school district issue between just the two of them. Five-member boards need to be substantially more cautious, and three-member boards have essentially no freedom to engage in such discussions.

Keep in mind that the same concepts apply to school board committees and to the members of a committee — which can be challenging at times. Also, it is important to be aware that “meetings” are not confined to in-person gatherings (e.g., electronic communications can also sometimes be considered a convening of board members). Board members also need to be aware of the rule that prohibits “walking quorums” (see question 2:5). (The Attorney General’s Open Meetings Law Compliance Guide.)

3:10 How can a board have thorough exploratory discussions given the restrictions of the Open Meetings Law?

The Open Meetings Law does not preclude thorough exploratory discussions. You may find it awkward to talk about some topics openly, but the board is obligated to conduct all discussions in open session except during the limited and narrow situations that permit closed sessions.

3:11 Can board members meet socially or as a group at training conferences without violating the Open Meetings Law?

Yes. Social gatherings and conferences, including attendance at the Wisconsin State Education Convention, are not considered school board meetings, even if a quorum is present, as long as the board members in attendance do not discuss school business or arrive at decisions about an issue.

3:12 How specific do agenda items need to be when giving notice of a school board meeting under the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law?

This is an important question because all board members have a responsibility to adhere to the Open Meetings Law, regardless of whether they had a direct role in preparing or issuing the public notice of the meeting. If a topic is not properly noticed and the school board addresses the topic during a meeting, each board member participating in the meeting could be found to have violated the law. In terms of what the law actually requires, the question of specificity is governed by a case-by-case “reasonableness” standard.

Under the standard, whether notice is sufficiently specific will depend upon factors such as the burden of providing more detailed notice, whether the subject is of particular public interest, and whether the topic involves non-routine action that the public would be unlikely to anticipate. As an example, if the public notice of a meeting mentions only “facilities planning,” that would almost certainly not be specific enough notice if the real issue to be addressed is a decision to permanently close one of the district’s elementary schools. Closing a school is not routine business and would be of high public interest. Generic subject matter such as “new business” is also insufficient. According to guidance provided by the Office of the Attorney General, “In order to draft a meeting notice that complies with the reasonableness standard, a good rule of thumb will be to ask whether a person interested in a specific subject would be aware, upon reading the notice, that the subject might be discussed.”

As a closely related issue, there are additional standards that govern notices of closed sessions. Although it is true that every closed session must appropriately fall under one of the statutory exemptions that allow a closed session, identifying the applicable statutory exemption, by itself, is not sufficient notice of the subject matter of a closed session. The Attorney General’s Open Meetings Law Compliance Guide advises as follows: “Notice of closed sessions must contain the specific nature of the business, as well as the exemption(s) under which the chief presiding officer believes a closed session is authorized. Merely identifying and quoting from a statutory exemption does not reasonably identify any particular subject that might be taken up thereunder and thus is not adequate notice of a closed session.”

3:13 What role does the superintendent play at school board meetings?

The superintendent is a key person at all school board meetings. The superintendent and president commonly plan the meeting agenda together. The superintendent makes certain the meeting room is set up as required and all tools that are needed are available, such as audio or visual recording equipment, smart board, internet access, network access, easel, projector, microphone, etc. Each item on the agenda is introduced by the president; however, for discussion or action items, the superintendent or a designee is often asked to explain the issue. The superintendent’s opinion or recommendation should be solicited before a vote is taken.

3:14 How do I get involved in board committees?

State law does not require the use of standing or special-purpose committees. The use of such committees is a matter of local policy and left to the discretion of school boards.

There are circumstances, however, where school boards are required to appoint a committee or group of individuals to advise the school board on specific matters of school district interest or concern. For example, school boards are required by section 118.019 of the state statutes to appoint a committee to advise the board on human growth and development instruction.

Similarly, the federal law governing school nutrition programs requires school boards to develop school wellness policies with the involvement of the school board, school administrators, school food service representatives, physical education teachers, school health professionals, students, parents and the public.

The breadth of committees, the composition of board committees and how committee members and chairs are appointed is a matter of local policy. In some Wisconsin school districts, board committees are comprised of board members only (i.e., subunits) and in some cases they consist of a variety of people as deemed appropriate given the issue the committee is charged to study.

3:15 Who is responsible for setting the agenda?

The superintendent and board president are responsible for setting the agenda according to most boards’ policies. It is helpful to familiarize yourself with the policy on agenda setting in your district.

3:16 How can I get my issues onto the board agenda?

The best way to get an item onto the board agenda is to follow your board policy and protocols — usually by contacting the board president, or in some districts by contacting either the board president or superintendent, prior to the posting of a meeting. In some districts, the board may set aside a portion of its regular meetings for the identification of future agenda topics.

Be prepared to be patient with your agenda requests. The need to prioritize the board’s work and ensure that the leadership team is adequately prepared to address a topic can sometimes mean that it can take a while to go from an initial suggestion to an actual agenda item. If only one or two board members have any interest in pursuing an issue, it might even mean that the school board never takes up the issue in a substantive manner.

If you feel as though the normal process for establishing meeting agendas is not giving an issue that is important to you a fair chance, consider asking for an upcoming meeting to include an agenda setting topic where the board as a whole will be asked to decide only whether the issue should be taken up in a substantive manner at a future board meeting. If, at that point, the board does not vote in favor of including the issue on a future agenda, the board’s decision regarding its current priorities should be respected.

3:17 Does public comment only pertain to agenda items?

Although school board meetings must be open to the public, there is no requirement that the public be allowed to speak and participate in the school board meeting. This decision is left up to the individual board if it wants a public comment period. If the board decides to allow public comment, as most do, it may set rules that restrict at what school board meetings (regular and/or special) public comment will be taken, topics that can be addressed (agenda only or all topics), the total amount of time for the public comment period and the duration of each presentation.

For more information on public comment periods, see the Open Meetings Law Compliance Guide from the Department of Justice and the April 2010 WASB Legal Comment by Boardman and Clark available on the WASB website.

3:18 What if a member of the public complains at a board meeting?

The grocery store isn’t the only place board members will hear complaints. If an individual raises a complaint during a board-established public comment period, it’s best to listen to the individual and then say that the board will take the issue under advisement and direct the concern to the appropriate person in the chain of command to respond to the constituent. You can expect the board president and/or superintendent to take control of this situation.

3:19 What is a consent agenda?

A consent agenda is an item listed on the regular agenda that groups several routine items under one agenda heading. Routine items (such as paying bills, approving minutes of the last meeting, etc.) can thus be approved by a single unified motion and vote of the board. The purpose of the consent agenda is to expedite business and streamline the meeting. There is normally no discussion of items on a consent agenda. However, any board member may request that any of the items within the consent agenda be removed from the group for individual discussion and a separate motion and vote.

3:20 Can I ask questions during the board meeting?

Absolutely! Hopefully, you have taken time to review your materials in your board packet and have asked for any clarifications from the superintendent or board president prior to the meeting. Certainly, as the discussion of an item ensues, other questions may occur to you that you have not previously asked.

3:21 How may I ask questions at a board meeting and still adhere to the "no surprises" rule?

If you think your question may be controversial, let the superintendent, the president or both know ahead of time. They can help you decide if there is a better way to address the issue. If your question is to clarify an issue or if it is prompted by the discussion, then it is appropriate to ask it at the board meeting as long as you don’t broach topics properly discussed in closed session.

If you have a question that may require collecting data or information not already in your board packet, you might let the superintendent know prior to the meeting so that he or she can come prepared to answer your questions or bring the matter to the full board to determine if it would like to have the effort and time put into the response to those questions.

If your question is about a matter not included in the meeting notice, the resulting discussion may violate the Open Meetings Law requirement that the public receive notice of the matters discussed at the meeting.

3:22 How is voting done at a board meeting?

All votes taken at a school board meeting are a matter of public record and must be recorded in the minutes. Secret ballots are not permitted except in the election of board officers.

Section 19.88 of the state statutes requires all motions and roll call votes taken at meetings of a governmental body (e.g., a school board or a committee created by a school board) to be recorded. This applies to open and closed sessions of the meeting. A board member may require that a vote be taken in such a manner that the vote of each member is ascertained and recorded. As a result, if a board member makes such a request, the minutes must reflect the vote of each board member.

3:23 Do most school boards vote in a rotating order or consistent order, or doesn't it matter?

The manner in which your meeting is run is determined by your school board. How you vote — in a rotating order or the same order each time — doesn’t matter as a legal matter. A rotating order allows for a different member of the board to be the first and last to vote. The Open Meetings Law simply requires that the public must be able to determine how each board member voted.

3:24 When does the board president vote?

The board president votes each time a vote is called. Some people think that the board president only votes to break a tie as the chair generally does under Robert’s Rules of Order. This is not true. The board president is expected to vote as a member of the board in whatever sequence the board is following. Whether the vote is rotated each time or each member votes in the same sequence, the board president votes in the same way as the other board members.

3:25 Can a school board member vote by proxy at regular or special board meetings?

No, it is not permissible for a board member to vote by proxy. The Open Meetings Law requires that a governmental body take action on a motion only when that motion is voted on by a quorum of the members who sit on the governmental body at a lawfully convened meeting. There may be other specific voting requirements on specific items that have different voting requirements (see question 3:5).

Opinions of school attorneys can vary as to, for example, whether a board member participating in a meeting via teleconference or web/video conference should be counted in the quorum requirements, and whether it is appropriate to allow a board member to vote on a matter when the board member is not physically present.

Many school attorneys have taken the position that it is inadvisable for a school board to permit an individual board member, who is not physically present at a meeting, to participate in the discussion, deliberations or vote on any matter that involves an individual’s due process rights or a quasi-judicial proceeding (e.g., expulsions, employee discipline, etc.). Concerns can also arise with allowing an individual board member to participate in a meeting remotely when the board has convened in closed session. (See the March 2020 FOCUS, if a subscriber, and the April 2017 WASB Legal Comment for more information.)

3:26 Can I abstain from a vote?

There is no statutory requirement that a school board member vote on all motions that come before the board. However, there is a legislative policy that favors the accountability of public officials for their actions. Therefore, board members who routinely abstain from voting on school board business, may find that their actions/inactions constitute a breach of their responsibility to those who elected them.

School board members should also be aware of any potential conflicts of interest that may exist (or the appearance thereof) and abstain from discussions or votes in such instances. As a general rule, school board members should abstain from discussions or votes on issues which involve a direct financial interest for the board member or a member of the board member’s immediate family as defined by state law (please see 19.42(7)). School board members should keep in mind related state statutes including, for example, section 19.59 addressing ethical standards for local governmental officials and section 946.13 addressing private interests in public contracts.

3:27 What if I disagree with a board decision?

If you don’t agree with a decision that the board has made, you may express your position for the record. But it is still your responsibility to support the board’s final decision. The time to disagree is during the discussion and with your vote (which is in the public record). If you are asked about the decision, explain why the board voted the way that it did. You may say why and how you voted; however, you should not do it in a way that undermines the board’s majority decision. As long as your comments remain factual and do not evaluate the board action, you are showing support for the decision. You should also direct questions to the board’s spokesperson if one has been assigned to that particular issue.

3:28 Can a board president offer motions?

Normally the board president calls for the motions on agenda items. The president is a member of the board with the same voting rights, no more and no less. It is permissible for the president to offer a motion.

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