Research shows that a well-functioning school board absolutely contributes to high student achievement. Boards that are effective at intercommunication and listening, and work respectfully toward consensus tend to encourage a similar culture in their school districts. School board members who work in harmony with one another and with their superintendent and treasurer also tend to earn the respect and admiration of their community. A high level of trust and communication is one to which all school boards should aspire.
Every school board member knows that a strong working relationship among the team can change with the next election or when a vacancy happens. There are steps boards can take to ensure their culture of good work continues through each biennial election cycle.
1. Connect with your strategic plan
Working with your community and staff to create a district strategic plan that is owned by the board and implemented by the administration is instrumental to continuous improvement. It creates an umbrella for the work of the district and allows leadership to align the work that is being done in the district. A strong leadership team should begin with a strong strategic plan. The plan may flex when board members come and go, but its foundations should hold.
2. Understand your board’s culture
It takes time and dedication to develop a strong working culture among the leadership team. Mike Rognlien, one of the founding members of the Learning and Development Team at Facebook and founder of Multiple Hats Management, defines culture as the accumulation of small behaviors. The members within a strong culture accept that every behavior matters and understand that it is the individuals within the team that form and maintain a strong culture.
Consider some questions to ask yourselves, such as:
- What are the best aspects of our work?
- Where and how do we communicate best?
- Where do we struggle most to communicate and get work done?
- What would we want a new member to know about our board team?
- Are board operating procedures documented?
Use board retreats to conduct annual self-assessments to help you develop and agree to standards and protocols for better board work. These could become part of your team’s infrastructure in a board handbook. Board handbooks are another tool to help maintain governance consistency when transition takes place. OSBA has sample material to help with self-evaluation and development of a board handbook.
3. Own your work through evaluation
Consider that evaluation is a powerful tool for developing culture. A strong evaluation based on benchmark standards and established goals and objectives is an important component of establishing positive working norms among your team. The process of working with broad goals and specific objectives and actions steps for attaining those goals puts the leadership team in a position of common understanding and mutual work. It allows the board to focus on outcomes rather than becoming mired in the minutia of daily operations. The basis of the process is to establish the parameters of the work of the superintendent and treasurer and give the board members better understanding of the overall operation of the district and a way to understand and monitor progress.
Working closely with the superintendent and treasurer on a strong goals-based evaluation system creates a foundation for a cohesive leadership team. OSBA has reference materials for doing a benchmark and goals-based superintendent and treasurer evaluations.
4. Consider an ideal board candidate profile
It unlikely that you will find board candidates who are ideal in every way. The reality is that what you consider ideal would not be seen in the same way by other members of your governance team. As a board, use your self-assessment to create a candidate profile that best compliments the strengths and weaknesses of your board team.
Consider the attributes that best serve your board’s needs. What attributes best compliment your superintendent and treasurer? What personal and professional expertise best completes your governance team?
The answers to these questions offer great insight into who you might recruit to fill the needs of your board.
5. Help prospective candidates overcome barriers
Here are common perceived barriers for people as they consider running for the board or applying for a board vacancy. Understanding and helping people overcome those barriers is key to successfully encouraging community members to consider a board seat.
- Often, prospective candidates don’t feel equipped to be a school board member. It is important to assure them that even public school professionals have a learning curve when it comes to being a member of the district’s governance team and that learning opportunities are always available. The primary consideration for any board member is a passion for helping children succeed.
- Offer conversations with candidates to help them more clearly understand the governance role of board members. Your help in conveying that board members are not managers or operational administrators may reduce frustration down the road.
- Many people feel like they do not have the social and professional network to effectively campaign. Offer to help them with their petition and give them practical advice they can use to make their name known to voters in the community.
- Help candidates navigate the requirements for getting their name on the ballot. Your experience is invaluable. An “over and above,” but quite nice, step is to go to your local election headquarters to pick up the packet for your prospective candidate.
- Be honest about time commitment. Candidates must realistically understand that there are times when board work will consume more hours but other times when it is not nearly so onerous. It is important for every candidate to understand that board service is much more than showing up for board meetings.
- Be willing to make introductions with the superintendent and treasurer and offer to help schedule time with them to ask questions and learn more about the district.
Considering some or all of these steps will not only assist in bringing solid governance leadership to your district’s future board members but will help strengthen your current one, too.