Insularity can be the kiss of death for otherwise high-performing school boards. A board that keeps to itself may soon come under attack by the very community that it serves. Absent a history of working together with the Town Council, the school board in Winthrop, Maine, faced a vote of “no confidence” by the council when it did not immediately fire a superintendent who was under investigation. By contrast, a 2011 study of 195 Pennsylvania school districts found a significant improvement in districts’ academic and financial outcomes when the school board bridged its world with those of its various constituencies. Boards with successful collaborations recommend five best practices:
1. Appoint a Board Liaison
One member of the school board should be responsible for establishing and sustaining formal relationships with other groups in the community for mutual support and information exchange. The structure of those relationships will look different in small communities than they do in large districts.
With fewer hired intermediaries and bureaucratic protocols, small districts typically have a school board liaison who works closely not only with the city council and the superintendent, but also with parents and teachers. The liaison would go to city council meetings, meet with city council officers and work with the president of the PTO. He would also bring city councilors to school board meetings and events – as scheduled speakers or regular visitors. In such communities, contact with parents, teachers and students is often frequent and spontaneous.
The small Alaska town of Ketchikan, with 8,050 residents, relies heavily on its school board liaison to provide essential contact and collaboration, as the school district includes another 13,477 people who live on nearby islands. The board liaison heads a committee made up of superintendents, principals and parents from various islands who come by boat to meet with him.
In large districts, the school board liaison will work less directly with parents. Schools in such districts usually have a social worker on the staff for that. In addition to meeting regularly with PTO presidents, the superintendent and the city council, the board liaison would also routinely convene with those social workers from the various schools. The board then stays abreast of challenges on the front lines of student interaction. In these meetings, the social workers who work closely with the students also come to know the priorities of the board.
2. Establish Protocols
There should be no guesswork at all about brass tacks. Everyone should know when and where meetings are held. Clear policies should answer customary questions:
Will city councilors and school board members attend each other’s meetings? Ever? Yearly? Monthly?
Will the school board and the city council hold a joint meeting of their full bodies every year?
When and how will the superintendent communicate with the school board liaison?
Will the board liaison meet once a month with the head of the city council?
Will the liaison collect written questions to take to the board? If so, can they expect a formal response?
How frequently will various committees co-host community forums?
How will ad hoc committees addressing shared concerns be formed?
3. Communicate Early and Often
When in doubt, the board liaison should call any constituents or formal committees with questions, encouragement or concerns. One district even has a formal “no surprises” policy. The school board, the city council and the superintendent promise each other that nobody will hear any critical comments for the first time in a public forum.
4. Work Together on Shared Goals
The board liaison should vigilantly pursue temporary or permanent partnerships with groups in the city that work toward the same goal. If the school board decides to promote student financial literacy, they might join forces with a local bank to arrange school visits and demonstrations. If the city council and the school board both need a state tax increase, they could join forces to advocate at the statehouse and to organize at the grassroots level.
Pet projects aside, many people in the community – not just parents, but business owners, elders, participants in religious and recreational groups – genuinely care about students. They would love to be asked by the school board to display student art work at their office, attend award ceremonies or otherwise celebrate student achievements. The students themselves can never have too much encouragement.
5. Respect Boundaries
When the school board works in tandem with individual constituents, teachers, administrators or parents, roles should be clearly defined. For instance, the school board classically establishes policies that the superintendent then implements. The division of labor is clear. The school board can establish comparable clarity about their role vis-à-vis other community partners.
A sincerely concerned board member may be tempted to overstep boundaries. A parent, too, might want to call all the shots when issues affect his child. Trying to control the other party kills the spirit of cooperation. Ken Graf, a city councilor in Alexandria, VA, describes the goal of collaborations with the school board: reaching “that sweet spot of joint, collaborative planning and thinking…without getting to a point that one side or the other feels they have completely ceded control or authority.”
Following these five best practices will make any school board a pro at collaboration with other stakeholders. With working allies in sectors across the community, the board builds a foundation of trust while bringing more talent and energy to its projects. When adults unite behind educational goals, the big winner is the students.