Function of a School Board Member
Governance and oversight of management. School board members hear those terms from the time they are elected, throughout their training as board members, and in the standards laid out by state associations, the National School Boards Association, and even state boards of education and state education agencies/departments. While board members hear the terms frequently, few take the time to consider what both terms mean at their core.
Oversight of Management
Oversight of management tends to be the default. Not only is oversight more tangible, board members have more experience in it. Almost all adults manage something in some capacity — people, a budget, children, a home. Most people feel like fairly competent managers. Tangentially, management includes tasks that can be quantified for the most part. Even a board member that does not feel completely competent can read a facilities report, track teacher attrition or get training in budgetary matters.
Governance is an altogether different matter, though. To begin with, what does it even mean? Literally, it can be defined as: the processes of interaction and decision-making among the actors involved in a collective problem that lead to the creation, reinforcement or reproduction of social norms and institutions. Governance differs from government in that it focuses less on the state and its institutions and more on social practices and activities. Both the Latin and Greek trace the roots of governance as meaning “to steer.”
To steer more nearly represents the heart of what board members should be doing in their governance role. So how is it that they default away from the primary role of their positions — the one that has the potential for the biggest impact on the culture of the community? Lack of understanding of what it entails. Lack of confidence about the impact it can have, as well as how to go about it.
Do School Boards Really Matter in Modern Times?
Former School Board Member Jeanetta Smith, Denton ISD, Denton, Texas, recollects her father, as a school board member in the 1940s, stopping his plowing to interview a potential teacher in the field where he was working. Board work moved away from this level of participation to more of an oversight role as legislation became increasingly specific about educators and their role as district administrators. School reform of the late 1980s/early 1990s focused on district employees, from administrators to teachers. Very little attention was paid to the board. In 1985, policy analyst Chester Finn went so far as to call elected boards both an “anachronism and an outrage.”
With the professionalization of education, the role of board members shifted. School boards were encouraged not to play an active role in student achievement. Generally, boards felt more comfortable leaving instructional matters solely in the hands of professional educators. Until recently, boards have been excluded from the school reform literature and from consideration as key leaders in the school change process. As research studies have begun to examine the impact of school boards on educational improvement, beliefs about school boards are shifting once more.
The more recent focus on accountability has increased the pressure on school board members to become a meaningful part of the team. Empirical evidence is showing the correlations between school board behaviors and student achievement.
Even though school boards are removed from the teaching and learning that goes on every day in classrooms, there are critical linkages between the policymakers who guide local school districts and the behaviors of those who interact regularly with students. Efforts to improve student learning must include efforts to support and develop the knowledge and skills of local school board members as vital parts of the leadership continuum providing guidance and direction around the urgent need to improve learning outcomes for students.
-Iowa School Boards Foundation
Governance Training Is the Key
If the roles of board members are changing, how can board members make the needed shift? Most states require school board training, to some degree. While it varies from state to state in terms of amount, method of delivery, topics and accountability, there is the clear notion that boards need training. While Missouri focuses on initial training, requiring 16 hours in the first 12 months, other states, such as Texas, Arkansas, Illinois, Washington and New Mexico, require additional annual training. A cursory glance at the approved topics in Missouri shows that while the balance of training topics is still skewed toward oversight, governance topics are appearing with increasing representation: Student Achievement, School Law, School Finance, Board Policy, Board Relations, Board Operations, Goal Setting/Strategic Planning, Advocacy and Communications.
A deeper understanding of school board governance discourages micromanagement of staff by creating a proactive role for board members in monitoring student outcomes. Boards must be trained not only on setting high-end goals for student learning, but also on the means to reach those goals. School board training can help board members understand the need for setting a vision and adopting goals to help make tangible progress toward that vision. However, this training requires a deeper dive than most board members can receive at a conference. Effective board training that brings about real change needs to be focused, specific and ongoing. Board training through conferences, seminars, books and videos is necessary, but modern boards require a paradigm shift. They need to understand that their behavior matters. How board members conduct themselves in board meetings, how they spend their time and the focus of their discussions all need to be examined if the real change needed to prepare students for their future is going to happen.
Technology and Modern Governance
If board members are to be the leaders of the district, all their actions matter. It is not enough to charge teachers with empowering future-ready students, boards can lead by example. Utilizing technology is a basic expectation in 21st-century classrooms. It needs to be with 21st-century boardrooms, too. The research shows that the more negative, unorganized and political a school board is, the lower the student achievement. Technology is the key to board members becoming organized and demonstrating that organization. A profusion of knowledge readily available to any board member lessens the politics that can creep into board work — it is the key to equity in terms of information. Many boards are fearful of technology; they fear loss of confidentiality, they fear change and they fear that they will not understand how the technology works. In a high-pressure situation in which many board meetings are televised or well-attended, board members resist change out of fear of appearing foolish.
BoardDocs, a Diligent brand, provides an answer to all those fears through a secure portal and training to ease the transition. If board members are going to focus their training on improving outcomes and changing behaviors, progress needs to be monitored and updated regularly. It is counterproductive to have ongoing training or coaching without having the results of those attempts noted and benchmarked. Strategic goals can be updated and trainings recorded in the portal. Training on the BoardDocs platform is available in order for the tool to become a seamless part of the board’s transition.
Perhaps one of the best outcomes of improved governance is a sense of trust and faith that forms in the community. Transparency is a hallmark of community expectations in this modern era and a key driver in creating trust. Trust translates into support.
In a time of political polarization, school board governance is one of the last bastions of democracy — the most representative form of government. Well-intentioned people coming together to make decisions as a collective, capitalizing on the strength of diversity. Little to no pay and quick turnover on school boards can push the community to feel as though the board is not steering the school in the right direction. Completing their training, as well as the outcomes of this new focus, will help to shift the perspective of all stakeholders. Good governance training will not only serve the board members, but a better understanding of the job will help board members educate the community, propagating the next generation of leaders.