Michigan’s School Board Association recommends providing new board members with an orientation program that extends through the first year of service, going into the details of superintendent oversight, district data, financial protocols and curricular matters. Some points, though, must be made clear to newcomers before the paint dries. In the welcome packet and at the initial orientation, what matters most is creating realistic expectations. The materials must provide a member’s job description, specify the extent of the board’s authority and spell out the procedures through which the board conducts business.

Member Job Descriptions

After taking the oath of office, the newcomer to the board needs to dive into the job with a looming sense of mystery about what that means. Because school boards differ from non-profit boards, as well as from corporate boards, misconceptions abound.

The job description for new members must make it abundantly clear that each and every board member is expected to do all of the following:

  1. Work with the community. The National School Boards Association (NSBA) deems this duty the single most important responsibility of a school board member. They are expected to represent the board at all sorts of community events, liaise with the media and build bridges to other organizations that also work for the benefit of students in the district.
  2. Speak up on behalf of public education. In joining the board, each newcomer is expected to endorse public education and to convey the conviction of its value to the community.
  3. Learn and review goals and policies. No school board member can help to “steer the ship” of the district if she does not know where to point the prow. Board members elected for their passion on a single issue may especially need to know that everyone on the board must share certain goals and abide by particular policies that predate their tenure. Some school boards even have the entire board commit the mission statement to memory.
  4. Study issues and regulations. It is important for each member to realize that it is his job to develop considerable knowledge of the matters facing the board and the legal requirements that their decisions must honor. That duty is not delegated to just one or two people on the board.
  5. Keep data secure. Today, every school board needs a data protection policy to prevent costly data breaches that compromise the confidentiality of sensitive information. For instance, the board should conduct all board business over a secure connection (and certainly not by email), with document storage on a secure private server. Most data breaches result from human error, and most people come to the board habitually using email and Google Docs. Onboarding must include training on the board’s software systems to prevent a disaster.
  6. Attend board retreats and work sessions. Those who see board duty as exclusively a matter of attending meetings may consider work sessions and retreats optional. They must understand from Day One that deliberate team-building experiences and immersive sessions focusing on particular topics are every bit as important as their other job requirements.
  7. Participate in professional development. Again, some school board members may consider professional development opportunities to be “gravy.” They may think that only those in paying jobs have the right to expect to participate in such educational experiences. The welcome packet must include material that sets the record straight: Participation in professional development is the duty of each school board member.
  8. Promote board policies. The welcome packet must clarify that each member is expected to stand behind the policies that the board approves, even if he personally dissented in deliberations. Once a policy is approved, it is each board member’s duty to endorse it in public.

Scope of School Board’s Responsibilities

Given that new members’ backgrounds may include private-sector board service, work for charities, religious service or household management, it is imperative that two distinctive features of the school board’s authority be explicit:

  1. The school board is a governing board, not a managing board. The board hires the superintendent, who hires all other staff. Daily affairs of the school do not concern the board. Some districts even ban school board members from school buildings, lest they get embroiled in personalities and disputes. Only Level III grievances advance to the board for consideration. When they do, board members should not have a bias rooted in limited exposure.
  2. The authority to make decisions pertains to the board as a body, not to any individual member. The state confers that authority on the board, and it does not extend to any board member acting alone. Michigan states this clearly in its orientation materials:

“The board of education operates as a corporate body. Individual school board members have no authority to act independently and can’t commit or bind the board by their individual actions. Powers and duties of the board must be exercised by the board as a whole.”

These parameters matter every bit as much as the actual matters to which the board applies its powers. Typically, those areas of responsibility concern hiring and evaluating the superintendent, setting overarching themes for the curriculum, adopting budgets, overseeing facilities issues and adopting collective bargaining agreements.

It is equally important that each newcomer recognize that the school board must abide by certain regulations that do not apply to other boards. He needs to know the stipulations of the state’s open meeting laws, regulations governing open records and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements.

Procedures

While the policy manual will cover every imaginable scenario, onboarding should answer new board members’ frequently asked questions, such as:

  1. What rules of order does the school board follow?
  2. How do I get a topic on the agenda?
  3. How do I communicate with other board members?
  4. Who can speak at meetings?
  5. How does the board evaluate the superintendent (and itself)?
  6. How are committees formed?
  7. What is the board’s cybersecurity policy?
  8. When does the school board hold closed sessions?

Welcoming new school board members must include arming them with the information they need to do their job well from Day One. Studies show that clear expectations improve participant satisfaction in any workplace. Moreover, spelling out the scope of each board member’s responsibilities, and those of the board itself, prevents errors such as media misrepresentations, a state or federal investigation of regulatory violations, or a disastrous data breach.