As I described in my previous posts, after spending years reading books about race in a community book club, I was primed to take an active role in the implementation of calls to action made in the report of the Ferguson Commission — starting with the elimination of the option of suspension for Kindergarten through 3rd grade students. A handful of states in the US (including New Jersey, California, Oregon, and Connecticut) have used legislation to implement or reduce suspensions for the youngest students. In Missouri, as in most states, this is an effort that will be made school district by school district. One effective early step has proved to be reading a statement before the school board.
I wrote up what I learned about speaking before school boards for a friend over the weekend. Her daughter was exposed to a racist incident in school and her concerns were dismissed by faculty and staff. That young woman and many others spoke to the school board of my school district on Monday. One speaker, a recent alum of the school, spoke as a member of the organization where I do most of my work, the West County Community Action Network (WE CAN). I had to miss the meeting while engaged in a different sort of work for the cause, so my contribution was to share my experience about school boards and to proofread the excellent statement that our young WE CAN member made.
This experience and some others reminded me that my approach to school boards, like much else, is from a white, middle-class perspective. I want to understand the rules and traditions and follow them. So far, that’s working for our initial efforts to start conversations about suspensions in our region’s schools. But, I’ll acknowledge that, sometimes, a more disruptive or subversive tactic is called for. Understanding the rules and traditions can be a helpful first step to subverting them, too.
Here’s a step-by-step guide for how to make a statement before a school board based on my experience in the St. Louis region. I’m guessing that most school boards across the country operate in a similar way.
- Consult the school district’s web site to find the next meeting school board meeting date and to see if they include instructions about making public comments. Sometimes, that information is well hidden. In some cases, the only way I found it was by searching: “School District Name” “public comment”
- Recruit a crowd. We believe that our statements have a bigger impact because we have a half dozen or more, sometimes many more, supporters.
- Recruit a speaker. School boards want, most, to hear from people in their district — parents, students, or citizens. We’ve made particularly good impressions with young alums. School boards love seeing the return of their successful students. Alumni make good spokespeople whether or not they currently live in the district.
- Alert any friends on the school board. If you, or someone you know, has a contact on the school board, the response might be slightly warmer if they know in advance why you’re making a statement before the school board.
- Alert the media. This is a new one on my list. Monday’s meeting got wider coverage because a reporter from our public radio station attended and wrote this report.
- Write your statement. In our region, many school districts limit each comment to three minutes — some school boards even have a timer. Practice reading the statement aloud to make sure that it ends strongly in less than three minutes.
- Print several copies of your statement and include your contact information. Leave a copy with the school board secretary so that the board or superintendent can respond. There’s usually a reporter for the local newspaper who will take a copy, too.
- Arrive 30 minutes before the start of the meeting to sign in to make a public comment. Every school district we’ve been to has some kind of sign-in procedure to make a public comment, either a card or a list. I’ve heard that they will limit the comment period and only allow a limited number of comments. To be sure that we’re on the list, we always plan to be first.
- Post a photo of the speaker reading his or her statement on Facebook, tagging everyone you know in the room. We get a lot of attention for our efforts from that type of post.
Tweet lines from the statement as it is being read, tagging the school district. The person making tweets will want a print copy of the statement and might want to type some tweets in advance.
- Be prepared to get no immediate response from the school board at all. Boards work slowly and fear making any commitment in the moment. Occasionally, we’ve had questions, most of which required simply re-reading the section of the statement that the questioner didn’t quite hear.
- Stay for the whole meeting. Some of your crowd can leave after the public comment period, having already made an impact. You’ll want at least a few people to stick around for the whole meeting though. It’s at the end of the meeting that you’ll find out who your allies are — those are the folks who will come talk to you after the meeting.
Do you have experience working with school boards? Can you add to my list?