A Free AND Ordered Space: Soooo…. What Should We Talk About? Constructing the Agenda

Part 7 of the series

By Lea Filippi of Sedor, Wendlandt, Evans & Filippi, LLC

In Alaska, local school boards have broad responsibility for providing an educational program for school aged children. AS 14.14.090. Boards do that work through meeting. Meetings are a quintessential example of the necessity of finding appropriate balance between freedom to speak openly on matters of great importance to the local community and the order necessary to ensure a board is able to meaningfully deliberate and make decisions necessary to fulfilling its important role.

State law governs certain aspects of board meetings. For example, boards must keep minutes of their meetings and conduct meetings in accordance with the Open Meetings Act. But many details of how a board conducts its meetings are left to be determined by the board through written bylaws. AS 14.14.100. This article encourages boards to look closely at the existing bylaws governing the conduct of their meetings and, in particular, to consider whether its bylaws regarding development of an agenda for each meeting should be updated.

Board bylaws address a wide variety of procedural matters from how notice of meetings will be published to which rules will govern the meetings themselves. In order to ensure that a board can meaningfully use its meetings to conduct business, it can be necessary to find appropriate balance between allowing time for feedback from the community and preserving time for the board members to discuss the business before them and make decisions. Board bylaws often include limits on either the total amount of time allotted for public comment or the number of minutes available to each commenter during each meeting. These types of content neutral time, place, and manner restrictions are important tools for keeping meetings productive and ensuring that board members have time to discuss and collectively deliberate to perform the work of the board.

Another critical tool for wisely allocating time for the board work in an efficient and effective manner is development of an agenda identifying which business the board will take up at a particular meeting. Bylaws assign the School Board President and Superintendent responsibility for developing the agenda. Bylaws also commonly authorize other members of the board to place an item on the agenda, often with a deadline several days in advance of the meeting.

But what about other matters that members of the public would like to see a board take up? What mechanisms can or should there be for parents and other members of the community to express that they want the board to take action? It is common for board bylaws to address that as well, although many boards may not have revisited that aspect of their bylaws recently enough for members to be very familiar with those mechanisms.

Bylaws for some boards require a designation time to be provided at each meeting for members of the public to bring before the Board matters that are not listed on the agenda, which the Board may then refer to the Superintendent, take under advisement, or choose to place on the agenda for a subsequent meeting for discussion or action by the Board. Other boards have bylaws which specify that members of the public can nominate topics affecting the district for consideration by the board by contacting the Board President or Superintendent.

Board bylaws for several districts have language stating that a member of public can request that “a matter within the jurisdiction of the board” be placed on the agenda of a regular meeting by writing to the Superintendent. The bylaws of some districts then make the Superintendent and Board President as being responsible for deciding whether the request is “which the subject matter jurisdiction of the Board.” Boards whose bylaws currently incorporate that language may want to consider amending it. One reason: the phrase “jurisdiction of the board” language is vague. The scope of authority or potential authority of a school board is quite broad as is the range of topics a board might wish to consider. Bylaws using the “jurisdiction of the board” language could be open to interpretation as meaning that the Board must add to the agenda of its next regular meeting any topic or request which a board could be capable of acting on. Interpreting a bylaw that way could have the potential result of giving functional control over conduct of school board meetings to members of the public. Under that interpretation, whenever a member of the public asked the board to do something which the board legally could do, regardless of whether the board had any interest in doing it, the board could be required to devote meeting time to addressing the request. This could take time and attention away from the board own priorities or other more urgent topics identified by the Superintendent as areas where guidance or decision making by the board was needed.

In order to avoid the tail wagging the dog by individual members of the public forcing a board to devote time to items it does not want to take up, boards with bylaws that allow community members to submit topics “within the jurisdiction of the board” for inclusion in agenda of regular meetings may want to revise their bylaws. Bylaws should make clear that the board retains the ultimate authority to determine what business it will take up and that members of the public do not have a right to force business onto an agenda against the will of the board.

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he views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Association of Alaska School Boards. AASB welcomes diverse perspectives and civil discourse. To submit a Guest Column for consideration, see our Guest Column Guidelines and email your 400-1000 word submission HERE.