How to Speak Effectively at School Board Meetings

From the Newsletter

Many parents think the best way to help their kids survive a public school system with competing interests and dwindling resources is to volunteer for PTAs and to provide tons of unpaid labor for the schools, which can be later traded for certain advantages for their particular kids — entrance into a specialized program or choice of better teachers. Over time, I’ve found that speaking at school board meetings is a more effective tool, especially when the goal is help all kids, not just your kid. 

Next Monday, I plan to talk at our school board meeting about the need for an 18-21 program in our town and how their proposed plan could be better. Other times, I’ve spoken out about the impact of school closures on academics, an audit of our special education program that did not get attention, and the appropriate usage of particular federal funds. 

In the past week, there’s been a lot of buzz about parents and school closures. Are parents happy with how their school has handled the pandemic? How many parents are unhappy with the status quo? Will parents pressure schools to reopen? Parents at a nearby town in New Jersey have been protesting their school closures, but they may not represent all parents in our country. 

I’m not going to weigh in on parents and school closures right now, because I haven’t been satisfied with any of the polling data yet. I have no clue what the majority of parents think. 

However, I do think that parents must be involved in education. Schools in our country are run by government and are, therefore, responsible to parents and residents. As a former political scientist, I believe that all political participation is a good thing and that we must encourage folks to be involved in all levels of government, from national politics to the humble school board meeting. 

So, let’s say you have thoughts about your kid’s or your neighbor’s education. Like me, you have concerns that twirl through your mind at 2:00 am. I want you to talk at your local school board meeting about these thoughts, opinions, or concerns. So, how should you do it? How can you be most effective? 

Here are some tips: 

  1. Educate yourself about how your local school board meeting works. Go to your school district’s webpage. They usually video tape the meetings and put them on YouTube. Fast forward through a meeting to get a sense of who’s who and how they usually run their meetings. School boards must open up discussion to the public at least one or twice during the meeting. Get a sense of when this usually happens (for us, it’s usually at the beginning and the end of the meeting). 
  2. Learn how they are handling public input during COVID. Are parents allowed to attend the meeting? Or do they use Zoom or another virtual platform? 
  3. Prepare your speech ahead of time. Actually jot down some notes. Usually community input is limited to about three minutes, which equals about a page and a half of words. Even those with a lot of experience with public speaking need an outline to guide them, when they are in the spotlight.
  4. Be professional. If you want these folks to adopt your plans, you must appear to be serious. Do not curse or get angry. If your town allows in-person meetings, then wear nice clothes. 
  5. Do your homework. School board members are volunteers with day jobs. They don’t have the time to do their research on every topic related to schools. So, help them out. Show up with numbers, research, and facts that they can use as they make decisions. After your speech, e-mail those numbers to them. 
  6. Don’t just criticize, offer solutions. If you have a problem with the status quo, take some time to propose alternatives — low cost ideas are always best — for the board to consider. 
  7. Always thank the school board members and administrators for their work with kids. It’s not an easy job, and they work hard, so give them props. 

Even if you are unsuccessful in making a change, participating in school board meetings is an empowering event, as all acts of participation are. You’ll actually feel great after doing it. In addition, participating in school politics can be an on-ramp to higher political office, particularly for women. If you find that you love speaking at school board meetings, then perhaps you should get involved in politics in other ways. 

So, start writing those speeches, people. And let me know how it goes.

31 thoughts on “How to Speak Effectively at School Board Meetings

  1. In the ’50’s, my mother (a public health nurse) thought that our school district should teach health education — which was extremely rare at the time. She did all the things you suggest, and in addition she solicited the support of various people who she thought the Board of Education would listen to, mostly because of their expertise but also because they had had children in the school system. There was certainly pushback, especially on the issue of sex education even though at the time sex education was simply “how babies are made” on an anatomical level. In the end, she prevailed. She gained the local nickname of “Mrs. Smith and her troops.”

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  2. When I was doing volunteer/PTA-type stuff in my kids’ schools, I would often say that the PTA moms should be on the school committee because they Get Things Done. I just looked at our current school committee membership, and 4 are women/moms and the one man on the committee is a school teacher (outside our district) who is also a dad.

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  3. “As a former political scientist, I believe that all political participation is a good thing and that we must encourage folks to be involved in all levels of government, from national politics to the humble school board meeting.” I love the optimism about democracy, politics, and the United States that this embodies.

    I’m feeling down about schools, though and realizing how schools have just worked for me (and my kid, though that’s only a 2 year sample in public schools) without much requirement for intervention from me (though I think my mom might have done more).

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    1. I now all those pieces of advice and I certainly always do a lot of research, but I have no feeling that my words are being heard. And I think I believe in persistence more than I am personally capable of it. But, your words remind me to do what I can.

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      1. Last week, I gave a speech demanding an accounting of how our district spent the CARES money. I ended my speech dramatically saying “Where’s the money, R…..d? Where’s the money?” heh. Guess what’s first on the agenda for Monday?

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  4. Laura said, “Last week, I gave a speech demanding an accounting of how our district spent the CARES money. I ended my speech dramatically saying “Where’s the money, R…..d? Where’s the money?” heh. Guess what’s first on the agenda for Monday?”

    Good for you!

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  5. About a year ago, a community meeting was held to get input on what would be good use of an abandoned building close to the high school.

    I was talking to my boys about it and encouraged them to go and pitch an idea for using it as a rock band studio– because that is one of the things they and their friends do together–(including in my basement (loudly) ).

    So I think they gave a little speech about how there are plenty of sports facilities, with tons of money spent on buildings and equipment for the athletic kids, and libraries for the academically-minded kids, and orchestras for the violinists– but nothing for the rock band kids.

    Anyhow–they said they were the most interesting part of a, “boring meeting where nothing got done”.

    The outcome was that they were encouraged to figure out a way to get it done, themselves.

    I guess they did learn about public meetings and how they are run.

    I think the building is slated to be used as a community museum.

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    1. That’s lovely that they did present. My son did submit a comment about schools to a local radio program that was soliciting comments (have no idea if anything was done with it). I am encouraging him to get more involved, beyond the social media involvement lots of students his age engage in.

      I think one of the big lessons of political involvement is that you will loose and loose again, and if you care enough you have to be persistent and learn to not expect immediate success, that sometimes not loosing is a win. Stacy Abrams wrote an Op Ed. It’s long and a bit slow, but I think it’s a good read for budding organizers (young and old).

      We also sometimes cite Emanuel Celler, a congressman from Brooklyn and a believer that the vibrancy of America relied on immigration. His first major speech in Congress was deploring the Johnson-Reed Imigration Act of 1924. He fought through the heartbreaking turning away of Jews before the Holocaust, against McCarthyism, for civil Rights, until his work passing the eponymous Hart-Celler act of 1965 which opened immigration from the countries previously limited by the earlier immigration acts.

      His time in congress ended when he was primaried by a Democratic woman (after Celler had opposed the ERA). He eventually endorsed her and she won in 1972.

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      1. Our university had a presidential search this year and I advised some students on how to participate in the candidate forums, and then sent them an encouraging email when the person they wanted wasn’t selected, highlighting how important it is for people applying for these positions to know what groups care enough to show up and ask questions.

        Speaking within your time allotment, or for only a few minutes if there is no formal rule, is very important. Pick the main points and stick to them.

        Also: get involved by running for school board yourself, pressing someone you know to run, or supporting the candidates you like. Small donations go a long way, as does doing things like flyer dropoff and making sure everyone you know personally votes. Here board elections are often low-turnout and decided by tens of votes (or less!) This was something my parents emphasized from when I was in grade school. Always, always know who is running, and if you don’t know much, like if you’ve just moved somewhere, find someone whose basic political alignment is close to yours and ask them to give you a rundown.

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  6. In honor of Laura’s exhortation that we must stay involved, I wrote to my governor and superintendent of education to support a incipient plan to require districts to present a plan to reopen (and a date) in order to receive CARES act funding (with the possibility of allocating funding based on the plans). I don’t usually advocate for withholding funds based on lack of planning (which would then make executing plans difficult), but I do not see our district moving forward without incentives.

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  7. The advice in 1 through 7 is very good, but you can totally get paid for it if you can routinely pull that off about something a large corporation cares about.

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    1. Yes, that’s basic lobbying 101. When I used to teach American government, I would talk about doing that in my interest groups section. So, I operationalized all that for my local advocacy work.

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      1. When Steve left academia, he was shocked by the higher standards of professionalism in his office. Academics are lousy, sometimes abusive, bosses. It’s crazy what we put up with.

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    1. Very nicely done. I hope the district gets their 18-21 program! Is it likely or one of those pies in the sky that don’t necessarily come through.

      Unfortunately, I’ve now spent a little bit too much time exploring the fate of the Infant/Toddler Development center and gossip about it 🙂 — after listening to a bit of the speaker who preceded and followed you.

      Our school board does not meet in person and I feel like we don’t have the gossippy blog posts that I saw on searching for the ITDC. Maybe because we are actually a large city? But, maybe I’m just left out of wherever that discussion is happening.

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      1. The school administrators sort of asked me to say that to make sure that the school board funded it. I did it, because I do think the town needs it and fir the good will. I’m not sure if Isn belongs there. He doesn’t have an intellectual disability and the other kids in the program do. The town wants him to go there, because the other options will cost them more money. I don’t know. I have to do more research.

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      2. Yes, I understood that you were advocating for the existence of a program, even if it isn’t going to be what Ian needs.

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  8. Feel a slightly punchy desire to participate in the R-wd Blog poll now, voting that I do not use the “ParkMobile” (whatever that might be), just to mess with their data.

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  9. I believe the Bellevue program has good reviews. My son is younger so I haven’t looked into it yet but I have heard positive things. There is a lot of intentional support. It seemed like someone who was attending it was saying they met at a smaller campus so I’m not sure how it integrates into the main college or whether there is a progression over time.

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