Tuesday, March 14, 2006

School Council Meeting

Tomorrow (Wednesday, March 15th) our JIS School Council will hold its monthly meeting. It's at 5:30 p.m. in the teachers' lounge at the Pondok Indah Elementary campus.

I'm going to attend, and I'll let you know what happens on this blog. If you can make it (which is tough with dinner time, homework, and traffic!), it should be an interesting event. Although I haven't seen an agenda, the Council's perpetual calendar (found in the back of the JIS Policy Governance Manual, which is available on the Council's page of ParentNet) says that this meeting will focus on:
  • Council-Executive linkages (under the Carver governance model, the "executive" is the headmaster, and the "linkage" describes how the two bodies work together and define their roles)
  • Financial accountability and performance
  • Reviewing ends policies and ends discussion (those are the big-picture issues: Who does the school serve? What service/outcome does the school provide? At what cost?)
Obviously, these all are big issues. And others are sure to come up. I'm hoping that much of this meeting will happen in open session, meaning that JIS community members will be able to listen to the discussion and debate.

School board meetings are tricky things. On one hand, the board (or council, in JIS' case), has business to conduct and discussions to hold. On the other hand, members of the community often have opinions or questions. Community members also want to understand the views and opinions of the people they've elected to represent them. To accomodate all these needs, board meetings (in the United States, at least....) are typically divided into three parts:
  1. The open session, where the board discusses agenda items. In many schools, the public is invited to watch the discussion, but does not play a role in it. As many at JIS like to say, this is "a meeting held in public, but not a public meeting."
  2. The public portion of the open session. This is when the people in the audience get to ask questions, make comments, or request information.
  3. The closed session. School boards sometimes must deliberate on issues that aren't suitable for a public discussion. The JIS policy goverance manual describes those situations as "sensitive matters not in the interest of the individuals concerned or of the School as a whole such as personnel, financial or security issues, acquisition or sale of real property, or grievance hearings."
The closed sessions are the tricky part. Closed sessions are very appropriate under certain circumstances, but they have to be used judiciously. The problem is that unless the rationalle for closing a session is explained carefully, closed meetings just look suspicious. In fact, in the States, there are very specific laws called "Open Meetings Acts" or "Sunshine Laws" (which vary slightly from state to state) that provide boards with guidance on open vs. closed meetings.

These laws on open meetings share a few points:
  • A board must clearly identify the agenda items that it will discuss during closed session, and it can't deviate from those items;
  • A board can discuss and debate those identified issues in closed session, but it can't vote on them or make any decisions about them. It has to re-open the meeting and vote in public;
  • A board must keep minutes of the closed sessions, which don't have to be released to the public.
Clearly, closed meetings have a place, but that place should be limited. Open meetings are a good thing for boards elected by a community because they just make logical sense, even when they aren't legally required. Open meetings encourage intellegent debate, transparency, and accountability. Discussing school issues publicly can be difficult, but it makes everyone smarter. Given the stakes, it's worth the difficulty.

Here are some websites with information on "open meetings acts" in the United States:

The Cypress-Fairbanks School District (Houston, Texas)
District 204 (Illinois)
West Virginia's Attorney General outlines the open meetings act
Q&A on Montana's open meetings rules
Kentucky School Board Association's page on the open meetings act


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