From a handful of people showing up to a local board of education meeting pre-COVID-19, to packed rooms and record online turnout in districts, once predictable ho-hum school board meetings have become fertile ground for confrontation in many communities.

So, how can volunteer school boards effectively get the people’s business done and maintain control of meetings, while still inviting public input and preventing hostile exchanges like those featured in the news — some of which have gone viral on social media over the last two years?

The best way, experts in the field advise, is to educate the public about meeting protocol at the outset of each session, show consistency in applying those rules and demonstrate respect to speakers addressing the board.

Public comment is designed to allow the community to provide input to a school board or taxpayer-funded entity and is a protected right under the New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act, also referred to as the Sunshine Law. The act lays out the rules about how decision-making government bodies meet, conduct transactions and vote, and provide public access and information about their work.

The New Jersey School Boards Association covers the Open Public Meetings Act and the Open Public Records Act during orientation for all newly-elected board of education members. It also offers continual training on these issues through its boardsmanship and leadership courses.

Handling Public CommentsGetting Off to a Good Start Setting the right tone for a board meeting helps to manage expectations from the beginning of every public meeting.

For example, a school board president could open a meeting with a statement something like this: “Thank you all for coming tonight. There is a large group here, and we certainly respect that you all took time out of your busy schedules to come to the meeting. We value public involvement in our school district, and we are anxious to hear what you have to say. The board does have time limits by policy, and it will be enforcing those to enable as many people to speak as possible.”

School boards are permitted to set an allotted time for comments, such as 30 minutes total for public input and a few minutes per person.

NJSBA offers sample policies concerning meeting guidelines that boards can use but suggests members seek their attorney’s advice for proper adherence. If a board believes more time is warranted for public input, it could extend its overall time period, with a motion and a second vote by the panel. NJSBA suggests adding 10-minute increments and requesting that only those members of the public who have not spoken come to the microphone to address the board and not repeat sentiments already stated.

Board attorneys can serve as trusted resources for school board members seeking clarification and direction in complying with the law. In addition, a video discussion about the Open Public Meeting Act can be found on NJSBA’s “Education Matters” YouTube channel. Also, the state Department of Community Affairs has created OPMA guidance for public bodies conducting remote public meetings during COVID-19.

“It’s been my experience that school boards want to hear everyone’s opinion and value each opinion,” said Katherine A. Gilfillan, a partner at the Schenck, Price, Smith & King law firm in Florham Park.

Gilfillan has served school districts for about 15 years, including Parspippany-Troy Hills, Warren, Montclair, Sparta and others — and she also specializes in special education law issues. She counsels school officials to explain how the public comment period works. She also points out that once the public input segment of a meeting is over, the administration may address inquiries or inform the public that it will look into matters to ensure that its answers are accurate. Gilfillan mentioned some districts use a three-light system, timing speakers and providing a 10-second yellow light warning, so that they know when their allotted time to address the board is ending.

“Education is a very heated topic. People feel very passionately for their children. They feel very passionately about education. We have to expect some level of that passion to come through in their speech,” Gilfillan said.

In particular, hot-button issues laced with controversial political undertones like masking, COVID-19 vaccinations, full-day versus partial- day instruction, and curriculum choices are often addressed by impassioned, sometimes upset community members.

Rudy DiGilio, a Franklin Township school board member for about 30 years, said that like some other school boards, his district had little or no involvement from the public until the pandemic, which resulted in about 25 people attending an in-person meeting to debate masks. He called that a record for his pre-K-6th grade Warren County district, which has about 210 students in one school.

“They were clearly passionate about their position, and they made their arguments. We gave them whatever time they needed. Of course, we state after a few minutes, if we have to move on, we will. I’ve never used that. I’ve always let people speak their mind. As long as they’re civil, they can have the microphone,” said DiGilio, a board president since 2021 and vice president for about a decade before that.

“I just don’t create a confrontation. I let people speak their mind, thank them, and then we move on. I think that’s the key,” he added. “I don’t let my personal feelings about masking or any other topic be part of the conversation. My personal feelings at that moment are meaningless. So, I avoid that. And, sometimes people try to drag you into that, ‘Well what do you think about that?’ ‘Well, you know what I think about that doesn’t really matter. It’s a matter of policy. If there’s government regulation or an executive order, those things matter to us.’”

DiGilio said that after Gov. Phil Murphy issued an executive order in August 2021 to mandate masks in all New Jersey schools, it diffused the situation.

“I made that very clear. That this is the reality that we’re all living with, and it actually was a real benefit to us to have that decision taken out of our hands,” he said.

While DiGilio said he has largely experienced a respectful decorum and acknowledged there have been intense moments and vulgarities expressed, he ignored them and did not engage.

“I’m not going to be party to an argument. I’m just not. We made it very clear, that if threats were ever made, that we would call police,” DiGilio said. “We are not going to tolerate being threatened in any way in the school or outside the school.”

The Warren district published a “Rules of Order” handout, detailing how public comments at meetings are to be handled. And, when sensing public discontent regarding an issue based on meeting attendance and the climate, DiGilio has moved public comment to the first item on the board agenda.

“I’m not going to try to subdue their input by forcing them to endure an entire meeting or half a meeting. I know that is something that really enhances the atmosphere, so we put it right up front,” he said, adding he asks audience members not to repeat the same points.

Theresa Lewis, an NJSBA field service representative covering Camden, Gloucester and Salem counties, said that in most instances, school officials know why people are showing up to their meetings and addressing topics ahead of public comment is effective. For example, a superintendent could explain that their district is complying with a mandate, federal or state law, or court rulings.

“The pandemic probably changed things because so many people felt as though they had to go to a board member to get the latest information or to express their opinion,” Lewis said. “And, quite frankly, I think a lot of it started during the lockdown because people weren’t going anywhere. ‘I’ve already watched TV, so let me tune into local meetings that are taking place.’”

“Obviously, their kids, that’s their number one priority. But, it’s their tax dollars, too, because the largest portion of their local taxes go toward the schools, so that’s why it’s already probably emotionally charged,” Lewis said.

Compelling school issues are not just about COVID-19, but also about more common subjects, such as resurfacing a track, redistricting, or making a change in athletic coaches, which are important to students and parents.

Public comment on these types of topics provide an opportunity for a board to gather community input — and to let everyone know that the board is open to hearing the views of its stakeholders, and will take them into consideration prior to voting. That builds board-community trust.

Cheryl Pitts, school board president for the Winslow Township School District in Camden, a pre-K 12 district that represents 4,600 students in eight buildings, said that prior to 2020, her school board meetings typically drew a low turnout unless a highly-contested issue came about, which might have attracted 25 to 30 people.

But, after COVID-19 erupted, she noticed the passion with which people spoke was evident in their voicing their opinions about masks, and remote or in-person instruction. The board also had the public call into its virtual meetings and to her surprise, at times, as many as 400 people logged in.

Pitts, who has served as school board president since 2014 and 15 years total on the panel, said that the most important thing for school  officials to do is simple: listen.

“Listen to the resident. Give them the full, what we allow is four minutes — give them the full four minutes, and of course, some of them will get passionate about what they’re talking about and they run over and I have to make sure that I keep them on track,” Pitts said. “It’s also important to let them know that even if we are not able to respond to an issue right there on the spot because very often some of the issues are confidential, to let them know that they will receive a response to their question and we will absolutely address their issue.”

She said she also uses her board’s meetings as an opportunity to inform the community about issues that she expects they will address. The district chief school administrator, Dr. H. Major Poteat, launched “Real Talk with the Superintendent,” regular radio talk show-style conferences to take public questions, which Pitts said has been positive.

“Very often, I have found that when people step up, they have been misinformed or they have been ill-informed, and so what I would say is most important, especially with this COVID, is to listen, to respond and to communicate with accurate, correct information,” Pitts added.

School District Policy NJSBA’s public participation policy 9322 outlines the rules of engagement and how school boards can handle public comments in their meetings. It allows for two public comment periods during board meetings: the first is for public comment on agenda items that will be voted on by the board during that meeting; and the second public comment period is generally open and held toward the end of the meeting for input regarding other matters of interest not on the agenda.

Remain on Task NJSBA’s field service representatives caution school officials not to get sidetracked during meetings by staying focused on their mission, vision and their students and staff.

If a large crowd is anticipated, a board may want to move its meeting to a larger room to accommodate the group. That can be done with proper public notice. Board members also should remain respectful to their audience and be mindful of their body language by making eye contact when addressed, and calling a recess if intensity creeps into their meeting to give everyone a chance to collect themselves.

Having a school attorney, who can speak on behalf of a school board during meetings, is wise. And, in some cases, asking police or hiring security to help ensure that school board members and the audience remain safe may be a smart choice depending on the climate.

“It is nothing that school boards have not seen before. If you really go back to your policies, it’s all there,” Gilfillan said. “If our superintendents and our administrators and our board members have a really good working knowledge of their policies and the basis and how those policies came about, then you really have a whole arsenal of being able to say, ‘This is how we’ve addressed this in the past. This is what’s worked. This is why it has worked.’”

Board presidents have the discretion to call a five or 10-minute break during meetings. They should stick to the time limit they set to let cooler heads prevail to help manage the temperature in a room, especially when people are calling out from the audience or refusing to follow meeting protocol.

Multiple Communication Channels While there sometimes seems to be a feeling of anonymity online, some people may become more tempered in their approach when meetings are recorded and they are required to give their names to provide public input.

Districts should keep their district websites updated, since some questions can be answered before they even come up at board meetings.

“Now we just have so many ways to communicate — districts really have to stay on top of it and hit them all if they are going to be successful communicators,” Lewis said. “If people feel that they are getting accurate and timely information, they are less likely to come and complain at a board meeting.”

Peter Calvo, Glassboro school board president, said one positive that has resulted from the pandemic is that there has been greater staff and public participation in his pre-K through 12th grade district’s meetings, which have remained hybrid.

As board president for the past 20 years and member for 24, Calvo said he knows many people locally and hears about community chatter and complaints prior to meetings, so he typically addresses those issues in his report and the superintendent will do the same. He has found being proactive tends to keep meetings civil and quells audience concerns.

“When the community is upset about something, to me, it puts fuel on the fire to try to publicly explain all the details. I try, we try, to do that right up front. ‘Here’s what we have,’” Calvo said. “Let them all complain. I’m not going to sit there and argue with them. ‘Well, these are the facts,’ because in my opinion, in my experience, it sort of just intensifies the debate. And it becomes a sort of a shouting match, which we always want to avoid.”

Calvo said he has left the dais and walked over the podium on the floor, where the audience sits, to directly communicate with the public during one of his board’s two public input sessions, all streamed online. In the past, he said he has formed subcommittees and task forces to look at issues of major concern in his community, to gain public participation and input for the board and to educate the public about different topics.

As in many other districts, meetings that dealt with the reopening of the schools during COVID-19 and transportation shortage issues due to unexpected retirements or staff not wanting to come back, drew a large turnout.

The Glassboro Board of Education offers two public comment sessions. The first is based on agenda items, where the board asks whether people support or oppose an item and their rationale; while the second is more of an open discussion.

“It is treated somewhat like a town hall. In some cases, I will engage in a dialogue back and forth or ask one of our administrators, either the  superintendent, chief academic officer or someone else, to provide some feedback or clarification. Or otherwise, when someone makes a comment, I will just say, ‘Hey, thanks for the feedback. Let us look into that, and we will get back with you,’” Calvo said.

Rosa Cirianni is a School Leader contributing editor.