MANATEE -- Manatee County School Board members focused on how to communicate with the public during a work session Monday.
The workshop at the Professional Support Center was designed to review a survey on communication and management board members took in August.
"The need now is to have your board procedures manual looked at, digested, reviewed," said Kelly Owens, a consultant with the Florida School Board Association.
The board discussed policies for internal and external communication and public comments. An agenda for the workshop was not advertised beforehand. The meeting was listed on the board's calendar as Master Board Training, which communications director Steve Valley said was posted on Wednesday. There was only one person in the audience.
Owen said the workshop was meant to identify general areas of need. Board members want to be clear they are speaking as individual school board members without speaking on behalf of the board.
"We need procedures for handling this," said school board member Dave "Watchdog" Miner. "When the public comes to us, we need to say something other than we're concerned, but I don't know what."
Miner said he is concerned parent involvement in schools is dwindling.
"The state tells the district what the school improvement plan should be, and then the district tells schools what should be in the improvement plan, and then we wonder why parents aren't involved," Miner said. "People come to meetings where they are going to have input."
Miner was referring to School Advisory Council meetings, a discussion cut short by Owen to maintain focus on general policies.
The board turned its focus to developing more defined policies for public comments during regular meetings. School board member Barbara Harvey said she is concerned about the public comments turning into public conversations.
Carol Cook, visiting chairwoman of the Pinellas County School Board, said the community knows ahead of time the school board will not respond during general public comments. When clarification is needed during Pinellas County School Board meetings, it is done by a staff member on the spot, she said.
"For a simple question, the board chair answers and we move on," Cook said.
Superintendent Rick Mills said the board can be more efficient by following procedures used in school districts across the country.
"We are careful about entering into dialogue for general public comments," Cook said. "But for comment about specific agenda items, we respond."
Mills suggested having speakers put e-mail addresses on public comment cards so their questions can be answered later.
Miner said he is concerned about the school board's public image as a "stone wall."
"If people don't have feedback, they are going to get the sense that we don't care," Miner said.
Harvey said she feels media coverage is to blame for rigid interaction during public comments.
"Some of our conversation does not need to be in the paper when it is more controversial," Harvey said. "I hold back for that reason."
Board members also discussed policies for communication with one another.
"It has been stressful, and we never knew what would come up in public comments, or who was going to erupt," Carpenter said. "The past two or three months have been more harmonious."
Owen asked school board members about their success in candid discussions.
"It depends on what the topic is," board member Julie Aranibar said. "We are like a family, getting good about not talking about things that don't go over well."
Owen said she has noticed Harvey often plays the role of mediator. "Now is the time to focus on how often Barbara is mediating; we need to fix that," Owen said. "It needs to be discussed if you are holding back and not discussing something. Work still needs to be done."
Owen said the school district is still in recovery.
"We have a lean budget," said school board member Bob Gause. "If we don't pay attention, we could end up back in a similar situation as we were before."
Owen said while the school board is considering contracting with an outside firm to update its policies, members will still be responsible for monitoring those policies.
Owen also told the board to be mindful of its public image.
"How you behave at a board meeting will set the tone for how you are viewed by the entire district," Owen said.
Cook suggested board members expand their presence in the community by attending more public and school events.
"You should have a process to identify key events to attend as a whole," Cook said.
Aranibar agreed school board members should attend more school events and fundraisers as school district representatives, rather than as individuals.
As the board continues to discuss communication policies, it will review other district policies as a model.
Suggestions from Cook and Owen include the Pinellas County School District and the Aldine Independent School District in Texas.
"From there you can develop an operating manual for the board," Cook said. "You will be able to talk about it as a group and make changes as necessary."
The board has yet to schedule its next policy workshop.
As the conversation turned to laughter, Owen said the camaraderie is positive.
"I have not seen a board sit and laugh together in a long time," Owen said. "I think that's fantastic."
Miner said he did not feel like the workshop left out any necessary discussion.
"I think it's necessarily focusing on how we go forward in the best way and how we can improve communication with ourselves and with the community," Miner said. "I got feedback from fellow board members in the sunshine."
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081