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Education Laws and Regulations

School Councils Questions and Answers
Part Three: Suggested Practices in Implementing the Letter and Spirit of the School Councils Law
B. Decision Making and the Internal Organization of the Council

What are some minimal recommendations regarding operating procedures for school councils?
Experience shows that all effectively functioning councils address the following operational issues:

  1. Number and schedule of meetings: A front-end decision about the number and the schedule of meetings will enhance the attendance and participation of council members. Because different schools have different needs and situations, experience has shown it is preferable to allow councils and principals to make their own determinations about the time and frequency of meetings.

    Councils have adopted one of two general strategies regarding frequency of meetings:

    • Some meet on a regular monthly schedule.

    • Others hold regular meetings at the beginning of the school year and then convene on an "as-needed" basis to ratify and bring closure on the recommendations of smaller subcommittees or working groups of the council. Advocates of this approach maintain that it conserves the time and energy of busy people and avoids meeting "for the sake of meeting.

  2. Agenda: Simple written agendas keep meetings focused and provide continuity from meeting to meeting. When publicly posted, agendas can serve as an invitation for other interested members of the school and community to provide input to the council.

  3. Minutes: Minutes are required by the Open Meeting Law and provide continuity from meeting to meeting. Minutes help to keep the larger school community informed about the activity of the council.

  4. Subcommittees: Subcommittees provide for a division of labor and allow different council members to focus on their areas of interest and expertise.

Should a council make decisions by consensus or by majority rule?
Both methods are used by councils. A major product of the council is the school improvement plan, which is designed to coordinate the school's resources and unite the efforts of those who care about the education of students. Schools with experience in school-based planning by teams report that it does not make sense to adopt such a plan through a split vote. They recommend consensus decision making.

Consensus decision making, however, can be painstaking and time consuming. Some councils find it useful to adopt a dual-level of decision making: consensus can be used on major issues such as the development of the school plan or the review of the school budget; majority vote can be used on procedural questions and on other less fundamental issues.

Does consensus mean unanimity?
No. Consensus is a way of working together that does not necessarily mean unanimity of agreement. Members of a consensus decision making process may disagree with a final decision but yet agree to go along with it. At the heart of the consensus process is the importance of each group member's viewpoint and the full opportunity to express these views. Under a consensus process, it is perfectly acceptable for a member to say, "I disagree with this decision; I've told everyone how I feel and the group has listened. However, I'm willing to support the decision in order to try it out."

The hallmarks of a consensus method are that:

  • Council meetings are viewed as problem-solving sessions and not as competitive, win-or-lose events.

  • All members have a chance to state their views.

  • Periodic "straw polls" are taken to identify the common ground among divergent viewpoints.

  • All members are willing to support the majority decision.

What are some basic rules that can facilitate shared decision making?
The law contains language such as "assist" or "consult with" the principal. Clearly it envisions that councils will share in decisions that are the formal prerogative of principals, to whom the law has given increased responsibilities for the operational management of the school.

Experience suggests that there are a few basic rules that can turn shared decision making into a collaborative and positive experience.

Rule No. 1: Explicitly state the issue that must be decided and why. Where does the problem originate? What values are at stake if the problem is not addressed?

Rule No. 2: At the outset, communicate clearly who will make the decision and identify any constraints that will affect the scope or content of the decision. The authority to decide and the ability to implement are two different matters. Accordingly, all of the constraints on schools -- budget, staffing, time, pre-existing regulations, and so on -- should be laid out on the table as the group begins its decision-making process.

Rule No. 3: Keep in touch. Communicate formally with all of those involved in the decisions that are being made. "Formal communication" means that a commitment to communicate is explicit and is bound by a timeline. For example, when a council conducts a survey, a needs assessment, or when its members formally consult their constituents, these outreach efforts should culminate in subsequent feedback from the council on how this information was used by the council. In the same spirit, principals, school committees and other school officials who are the recipients of the council's recommendations should agree on a timeline and a format for a response even, and especially, when a recommendation cannot be approved.

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Last Updated: January 27, 1994

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