By Jay Thorwaldson
ON DEADLINE blog: Will side effect of school board retreat be shorter (but better) meetings?Uploaded: Jun 29, 2012
One "news" item out of last week's Palo Alto Board of Education retreat was that future board meetings may well be substantially shorter, more focused and better at getting things done efficiently.
If so, this would qualify as major news for those in Palo Alto who care deeply about their schools and what they mean to the kids, families and community.
But the hard news of Superintendent Kevin Skelly's one-year contract extension Tuesday night overshadowed the fuzzier aspects of how to make school board meetings better. The discussion occurred during the day-and-a-half board retreat at Palo Alto's University Club -- before an audience that once or twice swelled to more than a half-dozen persons.
There were hard assessments of board meetings, which sometimes last until well past midnight -- 2 a.m. was mentioned several times.
"I hate our board meetings," board member Barb Mitchell opened up on the topic on Tuesday. She said she'd never been in an organization with fine people but "the worst board meetings I've ever been involved with."
There are no timed agendas, for one thing, she noted. But there's an even more basic problem:
"We've got to talk less, and have to have a purpose for every item on the agenda. It should be achievable so that we can get to the end (of the topic) in 30 to 45 minutes: 'The purpose of this agenda item is to get us to X.'
"There's no consequence" for extended discussions, she added. "We just go on and on."
Board President Camille Townsend agreed: "People with non-televised meetings tell me their meetings are much shorter," she said. She added later that board members are advised at state conferences that when speaking "we should not look out to the community but have discussions among ourselves."
Board member Dana Tom said Mitchell "raised interesting and provocative points." Then he added a broader concern: "By having items go so long it pushes important items so late in the agenda that the public doesn't like that, and the time commitment of a school board member is such that it becomes undemocratic.
"It has eliminated a lot of very good people who could be serving."
"It's an ongoing challenge," board member Melissa Baten Caswell agreed. "It's really hard," speaking "as a parent whose kids are still young." She cited "thousands and thousands of dollars" spent on babysitters over the years, plus some parking tickets.
She said she's had to leave important meetings early and "having closed sessions (before regular meetings) means whether I can feed my kids."
She said board members need to be aware of impacts of extended meetings: "We have to self-monitor ourselves."
Easier said than done. Governing boards have struggled with this problem since at least the days of ancient Rome -- when senators were timed by a bowl of water with a small hole in the bottom. When the bowl ran dry the senator had to shut up and sit down (or ask for more water).
Mitchell said she liked the connection to democracy raised by Tom and Baten Caswell. Bringing items of interest up early in meetings would be "a gift to the community," she said. As it is people stay home and "we have people texting from the audience as to when they should come."
"Are you saying we shouldn't have had 26 meetings on managing emergencies?" Townsend quipped at one point.
Board member Barbara Klausner noted that board members are "part of an organization that can't meet outside the formal meetings," a handicap considering the amount of business to conduct. Separating study sessions on more complex items might help streamline regular meetings, she said.
So what, other than a Roman Senate bowl of water, can the board do to make for more time-conscious, efficient meetings?
Some of the steps the board members and Skelly agreed to explore or try out include:
1) Labeling agenda items clearly as "action," "information," "policy" or other terms.
2) Instituting time goals or estimates for agenda items, and if possible continuing items that spill beyond the time limit unless there is a deadline urgency.
3) Reinstituting staff timekeeping on how long each board member talks during a meeting, separating staff responses.
4) Distinguishing between comments by board members and board actions, with feedback from staff as to "This is what we heard from the board" as opposed to individual members during a discussion or board action.
Board members agreed they did not want to limit public comment in any way, and in fact wanted to improve "outreach" so more people show up at meetings, study sessions and even board/superintendent retreats. Between four and eight members of the public showed up Monday and Tuesday, virtually all of them first-name regulars.
One wonders whether there's a connection between the length of meetings, the tightness of discussions and meeting attendance -- or should that be non-attendance?
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at email@example.com with a copy to firstname.lastname@example.org.