Communication Currents

Crises in Sites of Ordinary Democracy: Communicative Trouble in School Board Meetings

December 1, 2007
Crisis Communication

School districts are a crucial site of ordinary democracy in American society. The communication that goes on in school board meetings is the doing of ordinary democracy. In these sites, the ideal of democracy that infuses understanding of U.S. public life shapes elected officials and citizens' conduct. Ordinary democracy involves communicative actions that are consistent with the ideal of democracy; it also involves actions that challenge democracy.

The crises that school boards must manage differ from those that occur in for-profit businesses, nonprofits, and even other kinds of government agencies. Mathew Seeger and his colleagues divide crises into nine major categories: (1) public perception troubles, (2) natural disasters, (3) production of services, (4) terrorist attacks, (5) economic, (6) human resource, (7) industrial, (8) oil and chemical spills, and (9) transportation disasters. When a crisis in a school district taps into its ordinary democracy decision-making side, as is the case with financial troubles, a district will face communicative challenges that do not occur in for-profit businesses. In contrast to floods or school shootings that have a physical manifestation and demand quick responses, financial troubles are in the symbolic realm. They are often long-term in the making and solving, and citizens in a community who are to be affected by the crisis expect to have a say in how hardships will be distributed. In contrast to other sites of crisis in which CEOs can act unilaterally and fast, school boards cannot. School boards are required to consult with their citizens, discuss possible solutions in their public meetings, and, in the end, vote publicly on what is to be done.

In November of 2002, the St. Vrain Valley School District (SVVSD), one of the largest of Colorado's 178 school districts, experienced a serious financial crisis. The crisis, coming to light shortly after an election in which the district had passed a $212 million dollar bond to build new schools, involved a $14 million dollar budgeting error. The cause of the error and who was to blame were initially unclear. Once it was evident that there was no financial malfeasance and given the superintendent was new to the district, blame was directed at the board. How could the board allow such an error to happen?

At the time of the crisis, teachers in the 2400-staff district were among the highest paid in Colorado. This fact, initially used to explain the shortfall, later morphed into a criticism that administrators were scapegoating teachers and protecting themselves. Following several public meetings, a settlement was negotiated with the state regarding how to repay the $14 million. The settlement included immediate rollback of 7.1% in teacher and classified employee salaries, a 13% rollback in administrators' salaries and benefits, and a host of other cuts. In addition, the district put in place a set of financial oversight procedures to insure that an error of this type would not happen again.

What was the role of communication in this school district's crisis? After analyzing three public meetings, citizens' comments, and comments by school staff and board members, six communicative practices were identified as markers or cues of organizational crisis. The first and the most obvious sign was the occurrence of packed meetings, more meetings than usual, and changes to the typical ordering of items on meeting agendas. A second indicator was the usage by the elected officials of apologia-type comments at the opening of the first public meeting. The president and vice-president began the meeting by making comments that wove together excuses for themselves, blame for selected others, and statements of apology and regret. When the president noted, for instance, how “we want you all to know that uh we accept responsibility for the situation that the district is currently in. Uh there um may have been signals that we didn't pick up. There may have been things that we should have done,” her comment made visible how responsibility in ordinary democracy institutions is diffused between an elected, volunteer board and a full-time paid staff. A third marker of crisis was the way elected officials and high-ranking school staff gave information. Information-giving was carried out by describing the financial troubles in ways that mitigated a speaker's responsibility for the troubles. In explaining what actions the district would be taking immediately, the superintendent, for instance, prefaced his list with the comment, “in the 5 months and 12 days I've been in this position.”

The fourth cue of crisis was the angry interpersonal stance displayed as citizens gave or requested information during public comments, as well as through their presumably positive actions. Multiple citizens thanked the former superintendent who had returned to help the district sort out causes of the crisis. Thanking is a positive communicative act directed to its target; at the same time, thanking one party negatively implicates all others who are not thanked. To thank the returning former superintendent implicitly functioned as a criticism of the current superintendent and board. Fifth, the comments of St. Vrain citizens morphed the meaning of the initiating budget error into a multi-faceted problem that came to include concerns about the board's prior decision-making skills and accusations that the release of information had been strategically timed to insure that the bond passed. A final cue of the crisis, was the repeated calls by citizens for officials to resign.

The SVVSD had a more interactive public participation structure than that seen in many other similar-size school districts. Citizen speakers often had back-and-forth exchanges with school leaders. A more discussion-like format is better when deliberation is required, a state that applies in school board meetings much of the time. Compared to a hearing in which a string of speeches are given and others can only comment at the end, a discussion-like format allows citizens to be heard and better fosters democracy.

At the same time, a discussion-allowing structure can easily be subverted. Being able to demand that officials answer strings of questions, and that they do so on the spot, can be used to carry out nasty, personal attacks that are different in kind than those that are possible in speeches. A hearing or speech-constrained participation structure provides a check on intense emotional outbursts. Such a format permits the expression of outrage, but by restricting how long a citizen can speak and minimizing the demand for an immediate back-and-forth exchange, it enforces a limit on vitriolic expression.

Given the increasing difficulty in American society of finding citizens willing to serve in these unpaid, voluntary roles, it is important to take account of the concerns of the citizens who are board members, as well as rights of citizens to come to public meetings and raise criticisms. In sum, structuring participation in ordinary democratic groups poses a dilemma. The kind of structure that may enable a group to weather a serious crisis (speech-formatted participation) is just the format that can promote a sense that the governance group is superficially committed to democracy. Creating a participation format for public meetings that realizes one ideal of democracy (i.e., genuine involvement) may endanger a different facet (i.e., citizens' willingness to serve in volunteer leadership positions). There are no easy answers; however, if governance groups design their meeting's public participation attending to both horns of the dilemma, they are likely to create novel communicative forums and more ably navigate the competing pulls.