Public education is currently receiving significant national media coverage for an array of issues that have become extremely polarizing in the current political environment. Concerns over safety and security, curriculum, controversial library books, teacher shortages, school health protocols and more have turned typically mundane school board meetings into the lead story on the national nightly news. That’s why, in this environment, having a strong governance team is critically important to ensure effective classroom learning continues to occur amidst these historic challenges for public education. Building and maintaining a strong “team” with the board and superintendent can prove to be extremely difficult given the political polarization of these issues. Accordingly, superintendents must work intentionally to implement procedures and practices to ensure that their school district’s governance structure is effective, empowering them to work as a cohesive unit with their elected Board of Trustees.
Here are some good practices for ensuring a strong governance team with a Board of Trustees:
- Ensure a steady stream of proactive communication and implement procedures: This may seem “elementary” to many leaders, but providing frequent and proactive communication to your board on various issues in the district may often be an overlooked task. You never want your trustee to be “in the dark” on important district decision-making. Unfortunately, this often occurs due to poor communication, which may give the appearance of a dysfunctional board. And, every member of the board should receive the same information, whether they were the original “requestor” or not. Allowing one board member to possess more information than others causes disruptions – and even rifts – amongst the team. Additionally, allow your board to feel empowered to request information of your staff, but ensure all information flows through you. Establish a goal of 24 hours for your staff to respond to a board member requesting information.
- Prevent “Surprises”: Superintendents don’t like surprises, nor should a board. The board should hear about every major decision or change district leadership is considering from the superintendent prior to hearing rumors from parents or staff members. Additionally, arming the board with information empowers each if them to dispel rumors or misinformation in the community.
- Implement a constituent service “flowchart”: Many in the community, whether staff members or parents, often take questions or issues straight to a board member rather than to the individual or department directly over the area of concern. Naturally, a board member will have a strong desire to seek a resolution. While it’s important to assist your board member in responding to the individual, work with your board members on a process that directs such inquiries directly to the individual over the area of concern first. If an appropriate response or resolution is not provided or reached, the issue can be elevated to the next level in the “chain of command”.
- Hold frequent individual and small group meetings with board members: Prior to asking your board to vote on a major policy change or district proposal, ensure they have all necessary and appropriate information to make an informed decision. You can accomplish this by having individual or small group meetings prior to formal board meetings, which will give them ample opportunity to ask questions or request additional information. Of course, always be very intentional about not breaking any laws related to quorum requirements, and always ask your board members to avoid talking about how they intend to vote when holding small group meetings.
- Keep your board members engaged by keeping them involved: Form board “subcommittees” over various topics. For example, you may form a subcommittee on legislative issues to explore proposed policy changes to present to your state lawmakers. Or, form a subcommittee on safety and security to provide updates on school safety-related issues and take their input. Also, you may choose to place a member of your board on a district level committee – perhaps on one over the design or naming of a school. Forming board subcommittees and involving them on other various district-level committees allows your board to be a part of the decision process, in addition to being the individuals in charge with approving a final recommendation.
- Establish clear “ground rules” between governance and management: Always remember, the board governs the district, and they hire you to manage the district. Never confuse the two. While you should have members of your board involved at the appropriate levels of decision-making, always ensure they are not crossing over from governance into management of district functions.
Despite the uncertainty and often volatile dialogue surrounding public education, a school system – and students – can thrive with strong leadership in place. It is imperative that those elected to serve on the board of trustees are working cohesively with the superintendent to support campus leaders and teachers as they aim to meet the academic and personal needs of all students. These six practices will assist you in building a strong governance team for your school district.