School board lessons: respect, common sense

Panels are drafting codes of behavior

December 08, 2007|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun reporter

Treat everyone with respect. Wait your turn to speak. Come prepared to participate.

These are not friendly reminders in a schoolroom but a sampling from the Carroll County school board's new code for how members should behave when together.

Carroll County's board follows others throughout Maryland that have developed board norms. Encouraged at the state and national levels, the practice has spread as school boards fall back on the basics: common sense and respect.

"We thought it might be a good idea just to set some ground rules," said Carroll board member Patricia Gadberry.

Or, as member Jeffrey Morse said, recalling a colleague's description: "These are the things that teach us to play well in the sandbox."

Exactly when boards began crafting refresher courses of childhood lessons is difficult to peg, said Barbara Hunter, communications director for the National School Boards Association, which encourages boards to develop "some kind of code of conduct" or understanding of how to work together.

But the move could be tied to higher expectations of students, school systems and, consequently, of school boards, she said.

"That atmosphere has maybe ratcheted up the pressure on school boards and ... increased the emotional intensity around debates," Hunter said.

In Maryland, some of those debates swirl around No Child Left Behind requirements, state testing and meeting adequate yearly progress standards - and the almost-inevitable budget constraints.

Norms "are one step toward reminding board members that even when they are discussing a very emotional topic around education and children, they can still do it respectfully," she said.

"It's a good idea," said Carol Haislip, who co-directs the Hunt Valley-based International School of Protocol, which specializes in etiquette training. These days, she said, "the Golden Rule is not something we hear about as often. ... We could maybe all use a little reminding sometimes of what makes the world a nice place to live."

And having that reminder can also help resolve differences in personality and style, said Haislip and Kitty Blumsack, director of board development for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.

"There are norms in place everywhere," Blumsack said. "But everybody has a different set of norms."

One board, Blumsack said, included a member from a family of eight or so kids. The board member's experience had taught her to interrupt to get a word in edgewise, Blumsack said. But another member from a smaller family was used to waiting to be recognized before speaking.

"You've got two people who each have a different way of interacting," Blumsack said. "If you don't have something official that says, `We're going to do this,' then what happens in the long run is that people start to get upset."

Blumsack has guided several boards through the process of developing norms.

Carroll's board shaped its norms at a recent retreat - in part because of the brief tenures of many members, President Gary Bauer said. Two members have joined the board in the past year. Bauer is the longest-serving member, with more than a decade on the board. Vice President Cynthia Foley, who has served since 2004, is the next most experienced.

"There have never been any problems," Bauer said. But should any arise, members now have a gentle reminder in the form of a small printed card before them on the dais during meetings.

Barbara Shreeve, who joined the board last year, said she's a big proponent of the norm that calls for waiting one's turn to speak.

When she and fellow members were drafting the list, Shreeve recalled how they cut each other off as they threw out ideas.

"I'm guilty of it myself. ... It's very hard to sit back and wait your turn," she said. "I've been trying really hard since then to not do it."

Beyond basic manners, said Harford County board President Thomas L. Fidler Jr., such codes also set a standard for meetings.

"We have very limited time in [a] public hearing. We have a lot to get done," said Fidler, whose board adopted its code about four years ago. "There needs to be some protocol or some general regulations as to how we act in our time frame so that we are productive."

Hence, perhaps, this nudge on Howard County's norm list: "Be sure your part in the discussion adds value to the decision making process."

"It's like the Ten Commandments," said Sandra H. French, a Howard board member. "We all know those are good rules, but we have to be constantly reminded because we're human."

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