School District Client Advisory: Civility is not an Option, It is a Duty

“I could not but wonder at the Queen’s unprecedented civility, until I realized with a flush of shame that it was my own improved behavior that motivated hers. So it is that we in life determine our own treatment.” – Catherine Gilbert Murdock

I.    We Must Actively Encourage Board Civility

Over 20 years of experience representing public entities has taught me there is nothing more important than civility. On April 11, 2014, I was a featured presenter on, “How to Keep School Boards Out Of Trouble!” My initial focus was to educate the board members about open meeting laws, public records, and conflict provisions. Instead, I began by addressing board “civility.” The discussion became animated. The audience was transfixed, appalled, and even amused at my examples of how uncivilized board behavior led to lawsuits, bad press, wasted resources and low morale. One attendee asked me to define civility. I meekly responded, “The Golden Rule?” “Disagreeing without being disagreeable?” My answers were inadequate. I then had a humbling epiphany. As an education law specialist, and the General Counsel of one of the largest, most diverse school districts in California, I needed to do more to foster civility among the board members I served. I had underestimated the destructive effects of incivility on my district, my colleagues, and my community.

On some level I realized that the coarsening of the discourse was taking its toll. However, I was so involved in performing my duties; I forgot to do my job. I should have taken a step back and implemented training, policies, initiatives and protocols to promote civility. I realize that it is unfortunate that we have to establish standards for adult interactions, especially for people who have promised to place service over self. As I learned, you can never fully anticipate human interactions or the complexities of the human condition. That is why I believe proactive measures to promote civility are so critical. This is not being nice for the sake of being nice. But instead, it is an absolutely vital component of effective governance. Therefore, in this essay I will discuss civility and its importance to school boards and districts. I will address the deleterious effects of board incivility. More importantly, I hope to present no-nonsense methods to cultivate civility. It is my sincere desire that others will learn from my experiences, and this time I want to do better!

II.    The Lack of Civility in Public Discourse

Make no mistake about it; public life in America has always been a contact sport. The print media has published salacious stories about every politician from Thomas Jefferson, to Grover Cleveland, to Bill Clinton. Americans love scandal. The difference is Americans are now losing faith in the prospect for meaningful change. The debate has degenerated into a partisan division, name-calling, and unapologetic misinformation. The traditional media once helped us separate fact from fiction. Now, everybody with a mobile phone is a “journalist.” Blogs, Facebook and Twitter are breaking stories before traditional media outlets. The stories are more personal and more negative. The traditional media have to be quicker, more personal, and negative to compete. This necessarily impedes fact-checking, policy analysis and objective reporting. This is our reality. While we have little control over the proliferation of social media and national debates, school boards can decide to exercise their local control in a civil manner. It won’t just happen, it takes hard work.

III.    Why Civility is Necessary

There have been volumes of scholarly writing about the benefits of civilized discourse. Thinkers from Voltaire, to Martin Luther King, to Maya Angelou have waxed eloquent on its virtues. However, there are equally brilliant thinkers who believe argument, confrontation and dissent are the essence of representative democracy. Regardless of where you fall in this debate, civility is essentially treating others fairly. Disagreement plays a necessary role in governance. Civility involves how one expresses that disagreement. For the purpose of this discussion, civility is more than manners, it is a mindset. It is the repudiation of personal attacks and placing public policy over personal pettiness.

Board civility is a critical attribute of organizational efficiency because the board dynamics permeate the entire organization and community. The board models the behavior for the entire organization. If board members are uncivilized, senior staff have implied license to act in the same manner. If staff members do not model civility, how can we expect our other stakeholders to model civility? If adults are uncivilized, how can we expect our children to act any differently? You see the point and I have seen it happen. An organization struggles when its board struggles with civility.

Uncivilized discourse has further insidious effects. We are all asked for creative ideas on how to improve things. However, in an atmosphere of distrust, intimidation, and embarrassment, we are less likely to propose an idea for fear of public ridicule, demotion or marginalization. It is just human nature. The same holds true for action. In an atmosphere of incivility one is afraid to do things, even really good things, because they may be against someone’s interest and they have dire consequences. By contrast, if you do nothing, you are less likely to get criticized or targeted. This atmosphere makes it difficult to attract and retain the best employees. A lack of civility immobilizes valuable discussion and hampers positive change.

The community is also negatively affected. The public perceives a bickering board as dysfunctional and ineffective. Consequently, there is less “buy-in” for district programs, policies and initiatives. The community has less patience and may not accept incremental progress. Instead, they will only be satisfied with wholesale personnel changes; fire everyone! If the public sees board members squabble they will be less inclined to excuse the inevitable missteps that occur on public school campuses daily. Studies invariably demonstrate that incivility contributes to voter alienation and antipathy toward boards, board members and districts. Simply put, schools need parents, community leaders and volunteers to succeed. Without civility, these resources will be harder to come by.

The foregoing creates a bad press environment. Reporters love, “blood in the water.” They thrive on conflict – conflict among board members and conflict between schools and the communities they serve. Negative reporting increases in an uncivilized atmosphere. In an atmosphere where the board members distrust each other, negative reporting will be harder to control and will self-perpetuate. Reporters like nothing better than conflicting quotes from board members. Newspapers are still the greatest source of information about our local schools. This negative reporting kills community engagement.

Finally, incivility costs money. When board members cannot get along, lawyers get paid. Issues such as confidentiality, privileges, Brown Act, Public Records Act, and employment contracts take on great importance. When board members use these issues to “get” people or “win,” nobody wins. Unfortunately, the greatest casualty is usually the truth. Furthermore, what many people fail to realize is that these personal battles are waged with public dollars, your taxes. It is not right. But it is the price we pay for incivility.

The foregoing is a cautionary tale. I know what you are thinking… our board gets along. Our board treats each other with respect. Our board is civil. Unfortunately, that can all change with one election, one retirement, one person or one divisive issue. It can all change in a heartbeat. That is why we have to be proactive and always work towards civility.

IV.    Roadmap for School Board Civility

The following recommendations should be implemented with the fidelity to avoid the problems set forth above.

A.    Commit to civility

I once had a board member say to me, “I don’t believe in consensus.” Regardless, I still believe that most board members theoretically ascribe to the ideals of civil discourse. It is one thing to pay lip service to an ideal, but quite another to vote. School boards throughout the country have adopted civility policies. They have adopted policies setting standards for civil behavior. The standards recognize not only statutory board authority, but also the limited authority of individual board members. They clarify the different roles of board members and staff. They go so far as to require a pledge of civility that acknowledges that an organization’s collective decisions are better. These pledges state that everybody has a right to be treated with courtesy, respect, and dignity. More importantly, they establish community expectations. If a board member engages in an ad hominem personal attack on a speaker, colleague or staff member, they can be reminded of the policy and their pledge. With clear community expectations the board member can be held accountable…on election day.

B.    Receive continued governance education

Newly elected board members are regularly offered introductory governance training. This training is the nuts and bolts of public meetings and parliamentary procedure. I once informed a new board member of this training. They responded, “Don’t worry, I already know all that stuff.” I knew there was a problem. Board members bring a variety of qualifications and skills to their work. However, as President Shepherd said in Aaron Sorkin’s The American President, “America isn’t easy… You gotta want it bad.” Governance is complex involving competing roles, competing laws, competing interests, and competing motivations. Board members need to understand the Education Code, the Government Code, Roberts Rules of Order and/or Rosenberg’s Rules of Order. They need to understand policies and administrative regulations. This cannot be done as an avocation. Boards must make a public vow to get periodic governance training. Board members must hold public study sessions to improve their working relationships. Committing to individual and collective improvement will strengthen a board’s bond, and necessarily promote civility. At the very least, if board members work within legal parameters there are fewer opportunities for uncivilized behavior.

C.    Regularly review board effectiveness

School district employees are evaluated yearly. Board members are only evaluated each election cycle. This evaluation cycle is insufficient given the scope of their authority and the enormity of their responsibility. The board should receive a formal public civility evaluation. This will help them understand how they are perceived and help them improve. The board should have an expert create an evaluation instrument and hold quarterly civility evaluations. The evaluation should include the following criteria: Have board members received governance training? How are issues resolved? How is the board perceived publicly? Has the board had a civility study session? What issues continue to resurface yet never get resolved? How are board members relating to each other? How is the board relating to staff? How long does it take to get things done? How much time are we spending on personal issues or attacks? Do speakers feel safe at board meetings? Do staff feel safe interacting with board members? Does the public feel safe interacting with board members? Do board members listen, or prejudge issues? Such an evaluation can guide the board’s work towards civility in the future.

D.    Community governance training

I overheard a board member proclaim, “I was elected to get rid of the Superintendent.” Set aside that they never worked with the Superintendent, this not only underscored a basic lack of civility, but also the awesome pressures on board members. Board members are elected to represent the community. However, voters often fundamentally misunderstand what a board can do, and what a board member can do. In California, boards can only discharge their duties by a formal vote, in an open meeting, on duly-noticed matters. Board members have no individual legal authority. Furthermore, they cannot act inconsistently with State or Federal law even if those laws conflict with community values or desires. This disconnect between perception and reality inevitably creates unrealistic expectations. With unrealistic expectations comes unbearable pressure and sometimes desperate and uncivilized behavior. Board members want to fulfill their promises but sometimes they just cannot. Thus, at each regular meeting, boards should publicly discuss governance issues. They should discuss their respective roles. They should discuss their legal mandates. They should discuss their interrelationship with staff. In so doing, they can demystify their authority and create realistic public expectations. More importantly, if the community better understands the governance process they can more successfully navigate that process and help bring about meaningful change.

E.    Build a constructive relationship with the media

I have often heard board members lament that the local media could help educate the community and frame public decisions in an accurate and constructive way. They bemoan the local newspaper’s emphasis on conflict and “gotcha journalism.” School conferences now invariably include media training. Board members are afraid to share legally protected deliberations with their brethren for fear they will be leaked to the media. School principals have a bunker mentality because they are afraid of being publicly embarrassed and chastised. On the other hand, the newspapers assert school districts are secretive and not forthcoming with public records. What came first, the chicken or the egg? It doesn’t really matter, what matters is the atmosphere of distrust hurts everyone. To build internal trust, boards should develop clear written media protocols. Those protocols should be reviewed periodically. Boards should actively and publicly engage the media as partners to encourage a more civil discourse. If boards can explore opportunities for district-media collaborations, the public can be better informed on what is at stake and how they can help. What’s more, trust can be built, and trust can be earned. That helps develop civility and benefits us all.

F.    Stimulate community engagement

Citizens should think of themselves more as producers than consumers. Citizenship is more than voting, it is being a good neighbor, volunteer, and problem-solver. Politics become more contentious as resources shrink. The public becomes more discontented and critical when they feel removed from decision-making processes. School leaders should admit that we cannot solve all the problems. We need to tap into the full problem-solving potential of our community. Accordingly, we must find meaningful and legal systems to involve the community. Community forums are helpful. However, they need to occur within the constraints of the Brown Act. Community meetings should not be an opportunity for electioneering and criticism. Instead, the meetings should be a focused, issue-based problem-solving exercise. The more focused the discussion the more likely we are to solve problems and we are less likely to digress into name-calling or blame.

G.    Use technology as an information tool

On one occasion a board member confronted me, “why were you at a conference in Lake Tahoe last week?” Although I was at a local mediation, the “blog” said otherwise. I am not the only person to ever fall victim to a blog rumor. Not only the public, but also board members, often received information or misinformation from local blogs. Exclusive reliance on anonymous, uninformed or malicious bloggers is an abdication of a board member’s fiduciary responsibility and decision-making power. The Internet can be used as a powerful engagement tool. Educational leaders can use websites, webinars, and chat rooms to inform and educate residents, solicit feedback and facilitate community conversations. While school districts should be cautious of Brown Act, Public Records Act, and privilege issues, the public is growing increasingly comfortable with these communication forums. Accordingly, technology should be used for real public engagement and information. The greater the information, understanding, and participation, it is less likely the public will rely on destructive misinformation. This can only improve the atmosphere of civility.

H.    Separate personalities from problems

I have personally witnessed board members publicly chastise and embarrass each other and staff members. This conduct was extraordinarily detrimental to the organization for the reasons cited above. The better approach would have been to identify the underlying policy concern. Personal attacks or questioning motivations, character or competence rarely moves the conversation to a solution. Policy makers and educational leaders should address issues not attack people. Board members who attack each other, staff, or members of the public are the problem, not the solution. Management experts regularly counsel those with oversight responsibilities to praise in public and criticize in private. If a board member has an issue with a colleague they should first try to address it privately. If a board member has an issue with an employee they should go to that employees’ supervisor. If a board has evaluation responsibility for a particular employee, that should take place in closed session as set forth in the Brown Act. The law recognizes an employee’s right to dignity; board members should do the same.

V.    Final Thoughts – Civility Now More Than Ever

Civility is not an unattainable ideal. Civility does not compromise principles. Civility is not weakness. Civility is not an option! We have all seen on the national stage that a lack of civility can bring our great democracy to a standstill. It does not have to be that way. America, its leaders and its citizens have always banded together to do what needed to be done. Local school boards are no different. School boards have the unfathomable responsibility to train our students to compete in a global economy with shrinking budgets, more mandates and greater societal demands. We have to do much more with much less. We cannot do it if we are fighting amongst ourselves. We need civility now more than ever. So the next time you feel like your district is suffering from stagnation, gridlock or low morale . . . consider civility.

This document is intended to provide you with information about public entity/school district related developments. The contents of this document are not intended to provide specific legal advice. This communication may be considered advertising in some jurisdictions.

May 12, 2014