Bad Board Members: Obstructionists, Antagonists and the Just Plain Rude

Joel Gerring

By Joel Gerring, MASB Assistant Legal Counsel

DashBoard, April 27, 2016

If you serve on a school board long enough chances are, at some point, you’re going to have to deal with a fellow board member whose attitude and temperament go beyond merely “disagreeable” and into the realm of “antagonistic.” Increasingly, MASB has been fielding calls from exasperated members, inquiring as to “what can be done” about discourteous, obstructionist and sometimes just plain hostile board members. The answer? Not much, but also, more than you might think.

To begin, all board members are elected officials, therefore only the electorate can remove them via either an organized recall campaign (which can be very difficult) or through the regular election process. Boards, for obvious reasons, have no power to remove fellow board members for what might otherwise amount to poor conduct, no matter how negatively that conduct may impact the district. Indeed, unless the individual’s actions rise to the level of a felony conviction, there is no mechanism by which “bad” board members are officially reviewed, disciplined or dismissed from their position.

There is a misconception among the general populous (and even some school board members) that the Michigan Association of School Boards holds some type of enforcement power over school boards and their members, but of course, this is not the reality. MASB is a support organization with no investigative role and no punitive authority, although as part of our support role we do offer workshops designed to identify and help remedy board dysfunction. Hence, while school boards must comply with many state and federal laws, and can be held responsible for violating those laws by any number of governmental agencies, there is no mechanism through which a board majority might address or otherwise correct the misbehavior of one particular member.

Of course, school boards do have the ability to collectively speak out against members whose actions are deemed to be detrimental to the board or the district, or who otherwise behave in a manner that requires some type of official response from the board as a whole. Motions made during open meetings to censure or otherwise admonish particular board members are not entirely uncommon. Moreover, while such measures do not carry any particular authority in terms of directing the future behavior of the censured individual, they can serve to distance the board as a whole from that member as well as send a powerful message to voters. Of course, there is also the possibility that a public admonishment will have little to no impact, and could even serve to reinforce the misbehavior; possibly elevating the individual’s reputation from a mere obstructionist bully to some type of antiestablishment crusader.

Ultimately, the most effective way to maintain a civil and productive school board is to identify members of the community who would make a positive contribution to the board and encourage them to run for a trustee position. This is not to say that potential candidates are necessarily identified by their personal or political views, although an informed belief in the merits of a strong public school system should be evident. Most important, however, is finding individuals who have the ability to contribute to the discourse of school governance in an intelligent, meaningful and rational way and encouraging them to become involved. Taking the time to support informed and even-minded candidates during the election process is the most effective way to reduce the likelihood that your board will ever have to deal with an elected member who is incapable of contributing in a productive and respectful manner. This is not to say that a school board should collectively endorse any particular board candidate of course, but individual board members should always be working to identify people with the proper demeanor and skillset to serve effectively and engage them in an honest conversation about the need for good board members as well as the demands and rewards of the job.

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