The third episode in an “Education Matters” series focusing on school governance highlights how board meetings work.
Dr. Peter Hughes, superintendent of Haworth School District in Bergen County and a former member of the Kinnelon Board of Education in Morris County; and Kerri Wright, a longtime member of the Chester Board of Education in Morris County and a lawyer with Porzio Bromberg & Newman P.C. who often represents school boards, continue their wide-ranging conversation with Ray Pinney, director of county activities and member engagement at NJSBA, as part of the School Governance Primer series.
Most members of the public come to a board meeting wanting to engage in a long dialogue, but that is not how they are set up, Pinney observed.
“There must be an opportunity for the public to comment on matters,” said Wright, who is NJSBA’s 2021-2022 Board Member of the Year. But they are not set up to be a Q&A session or a “gotcha session,” she said. “Instead, it is public comment. It is an opportunity for the public to come and provide comment on whatever item or concern they might have.”
Hughes noted the board president is in charge of the meeting, and it’s their job to ask the superintendent to chime in to answer a question when they see fit. “It is intended to be the board’s meeting … but it is also an opportunity for the board to hear from the public,” he said. “It is an opportunity for the public to feel involved and be heard.”
Wright and Hughes also highlighted the Open Public Meetings Act, also called “the sunshine law” and how it relates to board meetings, how to limit comments to a reasonable time, rules for going into closed session and how to ensure fairness throughout the meeting.
It’s important when listening to public comments to treat negative and positive comments the same. “When they host their board meeting, boards need to be cognizant of that,” Wright said. “The First Amendment allows both sides of an issue to present publicly.”
Another topic they highlighted was the committee system, including boards that are a committee of the whole and boards that operate via individual committees.
Hughes said he’s a fan of getting work done through smaller committees. “I think it is really important because the division of labor allows people on the board to become specialists,” he said, noting that it’s important to remember that board members are volunteers and breaking work down into smaller committees can ease the workload.
View the third episode and others in the School Governance Primer series.