Before the start of the school year, local school boards are taking time — in closed-door meetings — to confab over the very nature of a board's role in district governance.
Schenectady, Niskayuna and Shenendehowa school boards have all met, or plan to meet, for private board retreats, which district officials say are used to strengthen communication and teamwork, not to discuss or conduct official business.
School boards are allowed to meet for private training sessions, said Bob Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, but they are prohibited from discussing district business like goals, budget priorities or long-term strategy.
Freeman said the closed board sessions should be generic in nature, touching only on topics that affect all school boards and districts but not delving into the specific circumstances of any particular district.
"The issue is whether the discussion involves issues that are unique to whatever the particular school district might be," Freeman said. He added that "it's always a concern" that discussion at such gatherings will threaten — if not cross — the line into district business.
"Nobody should walk in and say, 'This looks like, smells like, feels like a meeting of the board,'" Freeman said.
District officials, board members and the State School Boards Association said the board retreats are a chance for board members to step outside of formal meetings and discuss ways they can better communicate and operate as a group.
"How do we be a good team?" Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring said, describing the aim of the board retreat. "Let's take a look at school board responsibilities. How do we get better at those things?"
The Schenectady school board spent Thursday at the high school, working with Jim Butterworth, a former superintendent and state education assistant commissioner who facilitates board retreats through the Capital Area School Development Association.
"It's about how we conduct business, as opposed to conducting business," Schenectady board President John Foley said.
The school board association facilitates as many as 100 board retreats each year, said Barry Entwistle, the association's director of member relations. The sessions, which are tailored to each district's needs, most frequently focus on communication among board members and the superintendent, the roles and responsibilities of board members and overall teamwork.
He said facilitators and board members are constantly "self-policing" to make sure the conversation doesn't move toward formal business. The retreats are also an opportunity for new members to learn about the job, get to know their new colleagues and settle into their positions.
"I think any community would applaud their board for trying to be more efficient and more knowledgeable in their governance role," Entwistle said.
The Niskayuna school board met in private last week, with Jay Worona, the school board's association general counsel, for a training on board operations. They also met separately with a consultant to discuss the district's diversity. Both sessions were closed to the public, but an afternoon meeting about goals for the upcoming school year was open.
The Shenendehowa Board of Education will have a closed-door retreat Aug. 22 in the Gowana Middle School library for two hours prior to a 6 p.m. public meeting. The retreat, board President Bill Casey said, will focus on team-building.
“No business will be discussed or acted upon,” Casey said of the retreat.
Daily Gazette reporters Kassie Parisi and Kristin Schultz contributed to this report.