A framework for a successful school board

Over the past couple of months, I have been going through the IASB’s (Illinois Association of School Boards) website, and reading through two of John and Miriam Carvers’ books on Policy Governance (“Boards the Make a Difference“, “Reinventing Your Board“). While the IASB uses the Carvers’ work as a backdrop, they have clearly shaped it into something much more practical (it seems) and relevant for school boards, especially boards here in Illinois. This post will be my attempt to bring this framework even closer to home, outlining what I would like to see in Unit 4. Having said that, I readily acknowledge that there is a lot of work involved, and that these things do not just happen overnight. As the IASB is prone to say, the entire thing is a process, not a project. I also acknowledge that the IASB borrows a lot from Diane Ravitch, whom some of you may not hold in high regard.


The IASB has listed six “Foundational Principles” (<- please read!) that comprise this framework:

  1. The Board Clarifies the District Purpose
  2. The Board Connects With the Community
  3. The Board Employs a Superintendent
  4. The Board Delegates Authority
  5. The Board Monitors Performance
  6. The Board Takes Responsibility For Itself

I especially appreciate the opening salvo under number 1:

“As its primary task, the Board continually defines, articulates and re-defines district ends to answer the recurring question — who gets what benefits for how much? Effective ends development requires attention to at least two key concerns: student learning and organizational effectiveness.”

Basically, the board, having “connected with the community”, establishes a primary goal for the school district and then sets the wheels in motion to make sure that 1) the district stays aligned and on path towards the goal, 2) continually communicates with the “owners” to clarify said goal. In some ways, it might seem overly simplistic; the board tells the Superintendent to do a certain job, and that’s it. The board does not micromanage, the board does not necessarily care about report after report after report, the board does not have to bless every single decision the district staff makes. The board’s main purpose is making sure that the “ends” decided upon by the “owners” are being met. And I believe the IASB framework provides the steps to make sure that happens.

So even though clarifying the district purpose is listed as number 1, and I believe that indeed is the primary purpose of the school board, the second item, true “community engagement”, is the means by which the purpose is defined in the first place.

The IASB has published a paper called “Connecting with the Community: the Purpose and Process of Community Engagement as part of Effective School Board Governance“. It is 46 pages, and makes a strong argument for a better way of allowing the “owners” to have ownership. What does that mean? Who are these “owners”? From page 10:

Community engagement addresses “owner” concerns. It is not designed to address “customer” concerns. Customer concerns, such as dissatisfaction with a particular teacher or textbook, or questions about day-to-day operations, are best addressed by professional educators. For school boards, owner concerns are long-term, big picture issues about values and beliefs, mission, vision and goals — the community’s core values. School boards are uniquely qualified to address these owner concerns because they are elected, volunteer citizens who can engage their neighbors in these important conversations about the community’s purposes for its schools and the resources the community is willing to provide for its schools.


I believe Unit 4 has slowly been improving the way it addresses owner concerns, starting with the creation of a Community Relations Coordinator position. Here is a roadmap of sorts presented on page 22:


Clearly, Unit 4’s Community Relations Coordinator has embraced the first stage very well and has done much to better INFORM the community. The focus groups, surveys and meetings done with DeJong-Richter were an example of the CONSULT stage. The district will say they have also done a number of workshops under the INVOLVE stage, such as planning Carrie Busey before it was built, the current programming going on for the new Central, and a number of other cases. These latter examples (from the INVOLVE stage) are typically not well published or well-known, but they do happen. To truly give ownership to the voters and tax-payers, I firmly believe we need to fortify what the board does for the last two stages, INVOLVE and COLLABORATE. I will reiterate that the responsibility for this work falls under the board; whether they set out to achieve all four stages directly or delegate, it should be clear that the board’s fingerprints are all over the efforts involved.


From page 23:

“It is important to keep in mind that as the board builds these partnerships with the community the ultimate end goal of community engagement is to enable school boards and public schools to work effectively as truly democratic institutions that provide a collective benefit. The benefit is public education.”

After going through all these materials, I started to wonder, if the IASB provides a bulk of the training for school boards, why do we not see this framework behind the work of the board? I think I might have an explanation – it is my hope that once we realize what we have been doing, we can set about a new direction.

The IASB provides two “classes” as part of the “mandatory*” board member training (* mandatory as in required by Illinois State Law). One is the Open Meetings Act (OMA), which can be done either through IASB, or even online through the Attorney General’s office. The other is “A minimum of 4 hours of Professional Development Leadership training, including Education and labor law, Financial oversight and accountability, and Fiduciary responsibilities”. Isn’t it odd that the “Foundational Principles” are not even part of the training? When talking to representatives of IASB, I learned that they view themselves as an advisory group – they do not audit, police or monitor boards to ensure that they are actually following the IASB stated “best practices”. I will also note that the training events hosted by the IASB tend to be a little expensive, which is really a shame. Maybe we sponsor a single passionate board member (or candidate?) to attend one significant training event with the expectation that they will then be able to train others. Any other ideas?


Bottom line

So here is my challenge for current and future board members:

  1. Commit to reading, researching, and practicing the “Foundational Principles” as espoused by the IASB
  2. Commit to reading, understanding, and implementing the “Connecting with the Community” paper
  3. Sign this promise


Next post: I plan to follow-up with a post about what characteristics I am looking for in a board president and board members. My goal is to vote on April 7th (Consolidated Election) for those that are willing to sign the promise, or at least give me a very good explanation of why they cannot. *grin*


What is the ‘Consent Agenda’?

A reader asked me to elaborate a little on how the Consent Agenda is formed, so here is a response for those not familiar with the process. One big huge caveat – I am using information gleaned from previous board members, so it is entirely possible this process has changed.


First and foremost, we have the Board Policies which dictate how all this stuff happens:

270.17 BOARD OF EDUCATION MEETINGS – Board Meeting Procedure

The Board President is responsible for focusing the Board meeting agendas on appropriate content. The Superintendent shall prepare agendas in consultation with the Board President. The President shall designate a portion of the agenda as a consent agenda for those items that usually do not require discussion or explanation before Board action. Any Board member may request the withdrawal of any item under the consent agenda for independent consideration.
Items submitted by Board members to the Superintendent or the President shall be placed on the agenda. District residents may suggest inclusions for the agenda. Items not specifically on the agenda may still be discussed during the meeting.
The Superintendent shall provide a copy of the agenda, with adequate data and background information, to each Board member at least 48 hours before each meeting, except a meeting held in the event of an emergency. The meeting agenda shall be posted in accordance with Board policy 270.01, Types of Board Meetings.
The Board President shall determine the order of business at regular School Board meetings. Upon consent of a majority of members present, the order of business at any meeting may be changed.


It is my understanding that usually the Superintendent and the Board President sit down (either in person or email) and talk about agenda items early in the week. During this time also Board Members typically submit questions (I think they have up until Wednesday if they want a response by Friday). It is the Board President’s discretion which line-items appear under the “Action Agenda” versus which ones go to the “Consent Agenda”. As stated in the Policy, Consent Agenda items are typically things that have already been discussed and exposed as an Information or Action item in a previous Board Meeting. Sometimes the Consent Agenda will contain items that look mundane or trivial day-to-day stuff and it makes sense that they do not require discussion. On at least one occasion that I can personally remember, a board member has moved to alter a line-item from the Consent to the Action agenda during the course of a board meeting. After the Agenda is set, Tammy Sowers prepares, by Friday, a “board packet” (a comprehensive stack of information, previously all printed out in thick folders), generates the PDF version of the Agenda and posts it all on boarddocs. The public only gets to see a subset of the information posted. In accordance with the Open Meetings Act (OMA), the agenda is posted 24 non-weekend hours prior to the meeting.


Just to make it clear, a “Consent Agenda” is one by which the board votes for the entire block en masse. In all other agendas, the board hears, discusses and votes on each item line by line.

Crowdsourcing a draft for a new Board Policy

I am trying an experiment where I invite readers to help me craft a new policy for the Board. Please keep in mind there is a lot of unspoken depth to that first sentence; for instance, we community members cannot write policy. There are other issues as well. My point is to see what would happen if community members wanted a specific policy, and the process involved in getting to the Board and having the Board Members sponsor it and enact it. To that end, I have already started talking to Board Members because I am serious about seeing if we can get an agenda item on this topic for the August 9th Board Meeting. My goal, one way or another, is to change Board policy. I may fail, but from my point of view, this is a learning experience all around and thus worthwhile no matter what.


I am going to list a few iterations that Chuck Jackson and I have already discussed as a possible draft policy (using the Wheaton example as a starting point). We are opening it up for comment, suggestions and alternatives. My one rule is that if you don’t like something, please state what it is and suggest something else to replace it. To frame what we are doing, we are trying to keep it in simple language (as little Legalese as possible) with enough embedded description that future readers (future Board Members?) don’t have to guess at where we were going.


Draft I Read the rest of this entry »