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Parliamentary Procedure and School Boards

"Procedure is more than formality. Procedure is, indeed, the great mainstay of substantive rights . . . . without procedural safeguards--liberty would rest on precarious ground and substantive rights would be imperiled." Justice William O. Douglas

"The history of liberty has largely been the history of observance of procedural safeguards." Justice Felix Frankfurter


"Parliamentary procedure" is a term many believe limited to student government associations. However, school board members cannot afford to be ignorant of parliamentary procedure basics.  Courts have held that all organizations, including business, professional, educational, and governmental, are subject to the principles and rules of common parliamentary law.

In addition, many boards adopt language in their rules that they will follow a particular parliamentary procedure book, such as Robert's Rules of Order. Courts have ruled that groups that do not obey the rules or act contrary to the rules they have themselves adopted are liable for their actions. As a result, ignoring or incorrectly applying parliamentary procedure can lead to embarrassment as well as lawsuits.

The benefits of a meeting run according to parliamentary procedure extend beyond questions of liability. A presiding officer who properly applies parliamentary procedure can turn long, confrontational meetings into short, painless ones.  By strictly adhering to parliamentary procedure, meetings can progress smoothly and quickly.

What is parliamentary procedure?

Parliamentary procedure, or parliamentary law, is the code of rules and ethics for working together in groups.  Demeter's Manual of Parliamentary Law and Procedure states that parliamentary law refers to the rules, laws, or regulations of organizations, governing the orderly, expeditious and efficient transaction of business and meetings and conventions. Without rules, there would be injustice and confusion. Hence, it is as necessary to follow the rules of parliamentary law as it is to follow the rules of a ball game or a card game.

Demeter's, p. 4. Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised, another parliamentary manual, defines parliamentary law as follows:

The application of parliamentary law is the best method yet devised to enable assemblies of any size, with due regard for every member's opinion, to arrive at the general will on the maximum number of questions of varying complexity in a minimum amount of time and under all kinds of internal climate ranging from total harmony to hardened or impassioned division of opinion.

RONR (11th Edition), p. xlx.

Parliamentary procedure is the means by which organizations make decisions. Stated another way, parliamentary procedure is all of the laws and rules of organizations that govern the transaction of business.  Contrary to common perception, parliamentary procedure is not synonymous with the book Robert's Rules of Order (12th Edition)("RONR"). Instead, there are several major parliamentary books, with RONR being the most popular (used by approximately 85% of U.S. organizations that have a parliamentary authority). Another well-known parliamentary authority is Sturgis Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure, used by approximately 10% of organizations.  There are other excellent manuals of parliamentary procedure available. However, the fact that RONR is the most widely used book as well as the easiest to locate argues in its favor as a parliamentary authority.

RONR is an excellent resource for board leaders. The book includes sections on presiding, the duties of officers, running elections, making proper motions, and holding board and committee meetings.  RONR is fairly easy to find--just be sure to buy the right book. There are numerous RONR "clones" and earlier editions that are easy to get by mistake. RONR is available in both hardback and softcover (and is 714 pages long). 

What procedures must school boards follow?

"In the absence of the adoption of rules of procedure and in the absence of statutory regulation, the generally accepted rules of parliamentary procedure control . . . ." 59 Am. Jur. 2d Parliamentary Law § 3 (1987)(citations omitted). "If there is no specific, unambiguous statute or charter provision, resort may be had to Robert's Rules of Order [Newly Revised] for light on relevant parliamentary usages of deliberative assemblies." 59 Am. Jur. 2d Parliamentary Law § 3 (1987)(citations omitted).

As "generally accepted rules of parliamentary procedure" are difficult to define, most groups formally adopt written rules of parliamentary procedure. This can be accomplished by adopting a rule that a particular book shall be the parliamentary authority. The procedural rules in that book then govern meetings in all cases in which the rules are not inconsistent with higher authority, such as state or federal law. This parliamentary authority can be supplemented with specific rules to cover specific situations.

The conduct of business in an assembly often varies by size. Annual meetings of large organizations are typically formal in procedure. Business conducted in a board of more than a dozen members follows the same formal procedure. Some characteristics of formal parliamentary procedure are as follows:

  • Members must be recognized by the presiding officer before speaking;
  • A motion to take action must precede any discussion of an issue;
  • Motions must be seconded;
  • Members may only speak to a specific issue twice;
  • The presiding officer does not participate in discussion; and
  • Formal votes are taken by voice or ballot.

In contrast, formal procedure in a meeting of fewer than a dozen may actually hinder business. RONR recommends that the procedure in smaller boards be less formal, such that:

  • Members are not required to obtain the floor and can make motions or speak while seated;
  • There is no limit to the number of times a member can speak to a question, and motions to close or limit debate generally should not be entertained (unless the group has adopted a rule to the contrary);
  • The chair need not rise while putting questions to vote;
  • The chair can speak in discussion without rising or leaving the chair; and
  • Subject to rule or custom, the chair usually can make motions and usually votes on all questions.

While smaller boards can operate more informally, there are times that more formal procedure may be warranted. If a particular issue is hotly contested or likely to subject the board to publicity or a lawsuit, more formal procedure can ensure that procedural safeguards have been observed.

What is the standard order of business?

No meeting should be called to order until a "quorum" is established (or if apparent no quorum will be obtained, the Chair can call the meeting to order and immediately announce the lack of a quorum). A quorum is the number or proportion of the members of an organization that must be present in order to transact any business. The quorum for school boards is defined by state law. (In the absence of a provision regarding quorum, common law provides that a majority of members constitutes a quorum. 59 Am. Jur. 2d Parliamentary Law § 7 (1987)).  Once a quorum is present, the meeting and business may proceed. Quorum refers to the number of members present, not to the number of members voting.  If a quorum is present, a vote is valid even though fewer than the quorum vote (unless there is a rule to the contrary).

The "order of business" is the established sequence in which business is taken up during a meeting. It is a blueprint for meetings and provides a systematic plan for the orderly conduct of business.

If the rules of procedure do not include a standard order of business, parliamentary law has established the following pattern after the Call to Order by the chair:

I. Reading and approval of minutes
If copies of the minutes are made available, the actual reading may be waived. Following any corrections or additions, the minutes should be approved. Approval of the minutes is usually handled by unanimous consent.

II. Reports of officers, boards, and standing committees
The chair usually calls on only those members who have reports. A motion arising out of one of these reports is taken up immediately, since the object of the order of business is to give priority to business in the order listed.

III. Reports of special committees
Special committees do not have continual existence, but exist solely for the purposes of a specific project.

IV. Unfinished business
Unfinished business (sometimes incorrectly referred to as "old business") refers to questions that have carried over from the previous meeting as a result of that meeting having adjourned without completing its order of business. The following items are considered under unfinished business:

a. The question that was pending when the previous meeting adjourned;
b. Any questions not reached at the previous meeting before adjournment;
c. Any questions postponed to the present meeting.

V. New business
Following any unfinished business, the chair asks, "Is there is any new business?" Members can introduce new items of business or move to take from the table any matter that is on the table.

Optional headings in the order of business may include opening ceremonies, a roll call of members, a consent calendar for disposing of routine business by unanimous consent, announcements, or a program.  Any item of business can be taken out of its proper order by adopting a motion to suspend the rules with a two-thirds vote, although this is usually arranged by unanimous consent.

How is business brought before the board?

A "motion" is a formal statement of a proposal or question to an assembly for consideration and action.

A motion is brought before the assembly with three steps:

1. A member makes the motion.
("I move that...")
2. Another member seconds the motion.
Seconder does not need to be recognized.
3. The chair states the question.
"It is moved and seconded that (or to)..."

Once properly before the assembly, a motion is considered in three steps:

1. Members debate the motion (unless undebatable)
Preference in recognition:

1. Member who made motion
2. Member who has not yet spoken a first time
3. If possible, alternate for and against

2. Chair puts question to a vote
"The question is on the adoption of..."

(Voice vote)

"As many as are in favor of the motion, say aye."
"Those opposed, say no."

(Rising Vote)

"Those in favor of the motion will rise [or "stand"]. Be seated."
"Those opposed will rise [or "stand"]. Be seated."

3. Chair announces result of vote

"The ayes have it and the motion is adopted." (or)
"The noes have it and the motion is lost."

"The affirmative has it and the motion is adopted." (or)
"The negative has it and the motion is lost."

How do motions work together?

Link to Parliamentary Motions Chart

Many specific motions such as amend, recess, and adjourn have become defined under parliamentary law. For convenience and description, these various motions may be classified into five broad categories. These classes of motions are as follows:

Main motions

A main motion brings business before the assembly. It can only be made when no other motion is pending and ranks lowest in the order of precedence of motions.

Subsidiary motions

Subsidiary motions assist the assembly in considering or disposing of a main motion (and sometimes other motions). Subsidiary motions fall into the order of precedence.

Privileged motions

Privileged motions do not relate to the pending business, but have to do with special matters of immediate and overriding importance which, without debate, should be allowed to interrupt the consideration of anything else. Like subsidiary motions, the privileged motions fit into an order of precedence.

Incidental motions

Incidental motions deal with questions of procedure arising out of other motions or business. They have no order of precedence among themselves. Instead, they arise incidentally and are decided as they arise.

Motions that bring a question again before the assembly

These motions do not quite fit in any other category and rarely arise. They do not fit within the order of precedence and can only be made while no business is pending.

Not every motion is in order at any time. Instead, motions are proposed, considered, and disposed of in an order known as "precedence." Assigning a rank or order to each commonly used motion enables an assembly to consider each motion without confusion. The order of precedence from highest ranking to lowest ranking is as follows:

Privileged Motions

1. Adjourn
2. Recess
3. Question of privilege

Subsidiary Motions

4. Lay on the table
5. Previous question (end debate)
6. Limit or extend debate
7. Postpone to a certain time (or "postpone" definitely)
8. Commit or refer (to committee)
9. Amend
10. Postpone indefinitely

Main Motion

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Precedence can be defined with two basic rules:

1. When a motion is being considered, any motion higher on the list of precedence may be proposed, but no motion lower on the list may be proposed.
2. Motions are considered and voted on in reverse of their proposal. The motion last proposed (and highest on the list) is considered and disposed of first.

Link to Parliamentary Motions Chart

What are the principles of parliamentary procedure?

As with any area of the law, a little knowledge of parliamentary procedure is often a dangerous thing. Some people view parliamentary law as something to be learned so that they can manipulate the rules to their advantage. However, any intent in using parliamentary procedure that is other than constructive, such as to confuse or confound, is an abuse of rules. "The purpose of parliamentary procedure is to facilitate the transaction of business and to promote cooperation and harmony." Sturgis, p. 7.

Since rules cannot apply to every situation, recourse to the fundamental principles of parliamentary law as stated by Sturgis may be necessary:

  • All members have equal rights, privileges, and obligations.
  • The majority vote decides.
  • The rights of the minority must be protected.
  • Full and free discussion of every proposition presented for decision is an established right of members.
  • Every member has the right to know the meaning of the question before the assembly and what its effect will be.
  • All meetings must be characterized by fairness and by good faith.

Jim Slaughter is an attorney, Certified Professional Parliamentarian, Professional Registered Parliamentarian, and past President of the American College of Parliamentary Lawyers. He is author of four books on meeting procedure, including Robert's Rules of Order Fast Track and Notes and Comments on Robert’s Rules, Fifth Edition. Jim is a partner in Law Firm Carolinas. For more information, visit

Charts and articles are intended to provide general information on parliamentary procedure and are not legal advice or a legal opinion.