The communications protocols and board operating norms for the Prior Lake-Savage Area School Board, which asks for the board chair and superintendent to be copied on email responses from members, was discussed during the Sept. 14 meeting of the board.
The policy states that emails sent to the board’s group email address email@example.com will receive an automated response letting the sender know their message was received. The director of communications will consult with others and prepare a response for review by the board chair. The board chair will then send the response to the sender and copy the other members of the school board to ensure they “stay in the communications loop,” the protocol states.
If an email is sent to an individual board email address, “the board chair will forward the message to the superintendent and director of communications (who otherwise would not receive it) so a response can be created in line with these communications protocols.”
It continues, “if an individual board member receives a communication and is not sure if anyone else received it or would like assistance with a response, the board member is encouraged to contact the director of communications. The board chair should be copied on the response to the sender.”
The first reading of the policy was approved six to zero with Board Director Melissa Enger casting the dissenting vote.
Typically, if the board is contacted with a question or concern they are to direct the sender to the appropriate district staff member such as the school’s principal to help them.
But should a parent or staff member reach out to a board member with feedback or an opinion, “We shouldn’t have to copy the superintendent or the board chair,” Enger said. “We are seven duly elected individuals.”
“We talked about a district-wide theme this year of voices and the statement on the second page — where an individual board member receives a communication and is not sure if anyone else has received it, board members are encouraged to contact the director of communications and to copy board chair—the word comes to mind silence,” Enger said. “In the spirit of teamwork, I would ask that my fellow board members come together to really support a communication policy that more fosters not silence but the ability of all teachers and all parents and all community members to be able to share their voices.”
The protocol was reviewed by the board at a previous meeting and Enger has since had staff members state their concern that if they communicate with a board member it will be shared with the superintendent, who is their supervisor, she explained.
Enger motioned to eliminate that segment of the protocol, but received no support.
Following the discussion, the board went over its operating norms which also addresses communications with community members and staff.
“In order to facilitate constructive resolution of problems at the most appropriate administrative level, when board members receive questions and concerns from members of the community or employees, they shall direct the individual to the appropriate administrator in the district and the superintendent,” it states.
If a member receives an email from a parent with a concern about what’s happening at their student’s school they would be directed to the appropriate principal, Shimek said.
“But at the same time the principal is not my employee so I’m going to copy the superintendent in on that email so she’s aware that this information is being said to the principal and can follow up on this information, if they choose,” she said. “It’s not appropriate for me to try and give direction to a principal.”
The board’s responsibility is to manage the superintendent and to draft policy, Enger explained in a phone interview. The board can direct the superintendent who can direct district staff, but the board cannot direct individual staff as they are managed by the superintendent.
Like other school boards, any direction given must be done so by the board as a whole, not individually, Shimek said.
But Board Director Mary Frantz saw similar issues within this section of the operating norms.
While she found the email protocol of copying the board chair appropriate, she saw copying the superintendent on received concerns as a potential issue.
“There’s some things that probably shouldn’t be copied to the superintendent in that case depending on what the grievance is or the question,” Frantz said.
Board Vice Chair/Clerk Stacey Ruelle suggested Shimek consults with the board’s legal counsel on that section of the operating norms policy as it relates to copying emails and directing employees.
Frantz agreed that legal advice would be beneficial for further discussion of the policy, which will take place during the board’s Sept. 28 study session.
During a phone interview Shimek noted the importance of looking at the direction from the Minnesota School Boards Association which provides guidance for all school boards within the state.
If the policies are followed appropriately, they will build trust among board members, Shimek said.
“Often enough we get accused of not being transparent and this is just one more way to be transparent,” she said. “It’s all about transparency, communication and trusting.”