As board members, we are often asked questions about our role, authority and the process for public comment at board meetings. Attached is a useful School Law Advisory article (Maine school boards are unique: Understanding that uniqueness is important) that discusses the unique nature of school boards in Maine. We have also created a few “FAQ’s” that may be helpful in answering common questions.
Do board members represent the towns that elected them?
Although this is a commonly held perception, school board members do not actually “represent” anyone. Unlike other elected officials whose job it is to represent the interests of their constituents, once elected, school board members are public officers whose authority comes from state law and whose sole duty is to oversee public education in the manner prescribed by law and consistent with school board policy. The school board is a governing body not a representative body. When making policy, the school board will listen to community input but ultimately must make decisions based on the best interests of the district’s students, employees and residents.
Can individual board members take action or address specific concerns?
A board member can certainly listen to a resident’s concerns or issues but has no authority to act individually. School board members have no authority except at board meetings when acting as a full board. Further, board ethics policy requires that all residents’ concerns be referred by the board member to the appropriate district personnel (principal, superintendent etc.) who would have authority to address a resident’s comments.
Can residents raise issues at school board meetings? Will the board members respond to their comments? What can be discussed at a public meeting?
The Freedom of Information Act requires that all school board meetings be conducted in public. Unlike a town meeting, there is no requirement for public input or right to speak at a school board meeting. However, RSU21 does include on its meeting agenda a “Public Comment Time” which is an opportunity for public comment on items which are not otherwise included on the agenda. See Policy BDEH Public Participation at Board Meetings.
Per this policy, “the board ordinarily will not discuss, respond to, or act on public comment on non-agenda items during Public Comment. The Chair may refer such items to the Superintendent for further research and subsequent recommendations to the Board”. With respect to agenda items, “[b]rief comments from the audience on agenda items, prior to Board action, are commonly encouraged but may be limited at the discretion of the Chair.” Board members may respond to public comment as part of the discussion of any motion related to the agenda item.
For all public comment, “[n]o complaints or allegations will be allowed in public concerning any staff member or any person connected to the school system. Speakers may not discuss personalities or inject complaints about specific individuals, in name or by reference to position” and “[c]omplaints or allegations concerning specific personnel or persons (including students or any board member) connected to the school system will not be heard and should instead be directed to the Superintendent outside of meeting time.” Complaints concerning the superintendent should be directed to the board chair, if not resolved by meeting directly with the superintendent first.