by Sylvia Wood
A lot of the most contentious issues facing public education these days are being tried in the court of public opinion — on social media, blogs, newspapers, TV news, and during the public comment portion of school board meetings.
With a more engaged public, understanding the legal requirements of the Open Meetings Act (OMA) as it relates to conducting school business isn’t always enough, especially as more people turn out to school board meetings to discuss everything from mask mandates to critical race theory.
Learning how to embrace public comments, both from a legal and a public relations perspective, is increasingly important to avoid both litigation and negative headlines, as well as to build a strong relationship with the community.
To help trustees navigate potential pitfalls, two experts from the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) teamed up recently in Galveston at TASB’s annual Governance Camp to discuss ways to ensure a smooth meeting with a formula based on both legal requirements and best practices for community engagement.
Here are the key takeaways from that presentation by TASB’s Education Counsel Joy Baskin and TASB’s Associate Executive Director of Communications and Marketing Tiffany Dunne-Oldfield. Their tips reflect the most recent and relevant updates made to the OMA by Texas lawmakers.
Post meeting agendas in advance
School boards need to post their meeting agendas 72 hours in advance and publish the date and time of the meeting so interested members of the public can attend.
“If you know you’re going to have a large turnout, make sure you have enough space and seating,” Baskin said. “Although you may need to move your board meeting to a bigger room across the hall on the night of the meeting, you cannot change the physical address of where the meeting is being held after the agenda has been posted. Plan ahead.”
If the usual meeting location is changed to a different building because there’s a large turnout expected, inform the public about the change in as many ways as possible — not just on the posted agenda. “Legally, it’s enough to put the new location on the posted agenda, but we also encourage districts to share that change widely on social media and the district website,” said Dunne-Oldfield. “You don’t want anyone to think you’re not being transparent.”
Each person is allowed to speak
School boards must allow “each member of the public” to speak on any agenda item.
That means school boards can no longer ask groups of people speaking out on the same topic from the same viewpoint to designate a spokesperson, Baskin said. “If you have a hundred people in the room who want to speak, you need to give them each the opportunity,” she said. School boards, however, can limit the amount of time given to each speaker, she said. “We don’t recommend anything less than at least one minute.”
School boards may require anyone who wants to speak to sign up before the meeting by an established deadline, like 10:30 a.m. the day of the meeting. That gives district officials the opportunity to review the list and contact scheduled speakers before the meeting to discuss their concerns in more detail. “Sometimes the issue can be addressed and resolved ahead of the meeting, which is a win-win for everyone,” Dunne-Oldfield said.
Regardless, Dunne-Oldfield recommended that districts clearly outline the process for signing up to speak at a board meeting on their website so there’s no confusion. She praised Klein ISD for making it easy to find and follow procedures.
Allow public comment before or during consideration of the item
School boards must allow public comment on an agenda item at the meeting before or during the consideration of the item.
This provision of the OMA is intended to keep boards from debating or voting on an item before allowing the public to comment on it. Although boards have much flexibility on how they order business at a meeting, the goal is to ensure members of the public may express their views on an issue before a vote is taken, Baskin said.
From a community engagement perspective, boards should not push those items that may draw a lot of speakers to the end of an agenda as a long wait to speak may escalate potential tensions. “It’s just being aware that most people want to be able to speak as quickly as possible and then go home,” Dunne-Oldfield said. “Waiting hours to speak at lengthy board meetings, especially for parents who have brought their kids with them, is not going to go over well.”
Critical remarks are protected
School boards should not shut down critical remarks or stop comments just because they are disagreeable.
As school board meetings attract larger crowds, it’s important to remember that the OMA protects public criticism. This means that trustees should not try to interrupt or stop speakers who are openly disparaging or being critical about the district, its programs, or even its staff.
“It’s OK to refer people to the grievance process if they have specific complaints about an employee, but it’s important not to restrict speakers who may be rude or disagreeable,” Baskin said. “You don’t want to open the door to litigation because someone felt they were inappropriately shut down at a public meeting.”
If trustees have specific concerns, Baskin said, they should consult their district attorney for guidance. Even amid a contentious meeting with lots of public comments, Dunne-Oldfield said, there is much that trustees can do to mitigate potential problems by being courteous, respectful, and fair with each speaker, regardless of their opinions and comments. This includes:
- Keep a neutral facial expression.
- Pay attention and put down the phone.
- Focus on the speaker.
- Thank each speaker for coming out.
In planning for the public comment portion of a meeting, there is much a district can do to ensure a smooth experience for everyone, including:
- Make sure meeting procedures are available on your district’s website. They can also be printed out and given to attendees when they arrive.
- Enlist the help of a staff member to help keep time.
- Prepare a script for the presiding officer to remind attendees about the policies and procedures for the meeting.
- Have the presiding officer use the same consistent tone with everyone.
“Public comments are a legal obligation for a school board meeting, but trustees and district staff have the opportunity to build trust with their communities and families by taking extra steps to ensure the process not only complies with the law but also makes people feel welcome and respected,” Dunne-Oldfield said. “People will definitely remember how they were received at a board meeting, regardless of the issue that brought them out to speak.”
More information about the OMA
- TASB’s School Law eSource lists OMA resources from TASB, the Texas Attorney General, Texas Department of Information Resources, and Robert’s Rules of Order in one place for your convenience.
- The TASB Online Learning Center offers online OMA training that is customized for board members.
- In-person TASB events, such as legal seminars, Governance Camp, and Summer Leadership Institute, often offer OMA training. Check the TASB events calendar for upcoming training.