0413 Get Your Message Out

0413 Get Your Message Out

Board chairs have to be tightrope walkers when speaking for colleagues…and for themselves

By Brad Hughes
KSBA Member Support/Communications Services Director
With quite a few new Kentucky school board chairpersons new to their leadership roles, it wasn’t a surprise when a subject came up in conversation with one of them at the KSBA annual conference.

What was surprising was having a nearly identical conversation with a first-term board chairperson at the Louisiana School Boards Association conference, where I had the opportunity to do some news media and community relations training.

The issue? Their responsibilities as spokesperson for the full board…and then speaking for herself or himself as an individual member.
Now this isn’t an issue if you are the chairperson of a board where:

• Everyone always agrees with everyone else on every subject

• The board votes are always unanimous

• No citizens or reporters ever try to get individual board members to offer differing opinions
If you are leading such a board, please call the Guinness World Records book folks immediately, as I’m certain they have a page available for your district.

But, just in case one or more of those factors doesn’t apply to the board you lead, let’s explore in more depth some issues and options.

“One voice” board policies
Few board policies make me cringe more than those that state something like, “The chairperson speaks for the board on all matters.”

Really? OK, you are the board chairperson on the losing side of a 3-2 vote. Now raise your hand if you are committed to being the passionate public advocate for that decision you just voted against.

The problem with the chairperson-as-the-lone-spokesperson policy is that it’s well-intentioned but impractical. I don’t doubt that many board members would rather have the chairperson being the one who answers the questions from citizens and the media. But one person’s “one voice” rule is another person’s muzzle.

And an inflexible board spokesman policy that is probably going to be violated when members differ on an issue of great public interest is an invitation for critics to use at another time when the board claims slavish devotion to policy language.

Other voices, other situations
A whole column could be written just citing times when the statements of many board members turned the tide of public opinion. Simply put, there are times when even a unanimous board decision can best be explained by a public airing of how the different board members came to the same conclusion.

On issues they care about – the important decisions or the big controversies – people often want to know why the person they elected to office voted the way he or she did. Even if you are saying virtually the same things, having the chairperson speak alone won’t have the same impact as the voices of all the elected representatives.

Every board member deserves the right to speak when she or he is enthusiastic about the subject.

Leading in meetings
For a good model, tune in to watch online as the Kentucky Board of Education meets. KBE Chairman David Karem devotes extra effort to ensuring that the questions and insights of all state board members who want to share their 2-cents’ worth are heard. In these public meetings, often covered by reporters, Karem operates like a TV newscast director, taking the shot from Camera 1, then Camera 4, then Camera 2, as he recognizes board members to speak: “Brigitte, then Mary Gwen, then Roger.”

Karem told me, “Generally the chair speaks for the board; however, certain members have special knowledge on subjects and they might address the issue for the board. All members are free to have their own view, and are only asked to point out they are speaking personally and not for the board. I think it is important to have all members feel it is a board of equals.”

The Last Word
Without question, the unified voice of the school board through its chairperson has a purpose. Even a divided board has a responsibility to signal that, “A decision has been made. We are moving forward.” And often that’s best done – in the long run – by the board chairperson answering questions, taking the heat, offering the shelter, moving ahead.

Just remember that this year’s chairperson may be next year’s member in a non-leadership role. How you lead, the rules you advocate, the limitations as well as the options that you champion as board chairperson now can allow your voice to be heard at another time…or leave you uncomfortably hushed.

And that’s a message worth getting out.
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