The Purpose of the School Board, part 2

Two years ago, I wrote a post about “The Purpose of the School Board“. Recently, a number of events have persuaded me to revisit this topic. In particular, at least two groups (possibly more) are actively seeking to form a slate of board member candidates for the April 2015 elections. I have asked, but I am not yet at liberty to disclose more details. I will say that I am involved in one of those efforts.

 

But this post is more about what role the school board plays. Or to look at it from a different angle, what would happen if there were no school board in Unit 4 as it currently exists? Who would hire the superintendent? What else would be different?

 

I have an ongoing conversation with Ms. Cathy Talbert of the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB). She has been very helpful in giving me a broad, 10,000ft picture of how the IASB’s stance towards governance affects the way they train board members. I have also learned that John Carver’s “Policy Governance” has had a huge impact and heavily influences how those perspectives are formed. Ms. Talbert has warned me that while Carver’s philosophy is definitely a significant ingredient, it by no means implies that the IASB follows “Policy Governance” 100%; while giving me some ideas of how to get started in my understanding of IASB’s philosophy, she mentioned that I should read John Carver’s books and also cherry-picked a few IASB websites for me to look at.

Diving into John Carver’s world is kind of like swimming in an ocean; it is vast, deep, and not much land in sight. I started with “Boards That Make a Difference“, the official primer for Carver’s “Policy Governance”; in this post I’ll focus on that which seems ideal for our school district. And hopefully I can present a much simpler, much more concise version while still being true to the source material.

 

The purpose of the school board is to be the moral compass of the school district. Not strictly dividing “right” from “wrong”, but more generally painting the long-term description of the “products” or “benefits” that the “owners” desire of the “organization.” There are several salient points that make this fundamental and critical:

  • The people who pay the taxes and vote are the owners; they must fully take ownership of the public school district (Unit 4 Board Policy 105).
  • The board merely represents the will of the people; they are not necessarily experts in education, but they are the people when it comes to the boardroom table.
  • As such, the board is obligated to build relationships with the community over and above the staff; an inherent part of a board member’s job is to seek out diverse opinions and to make himself or herself readily available to the “owners”; they are to be collectors of opinions and perspectives across the wide gamut of community members.
  • The board policies should be very broad, very global, categorized into perhaps 4 distinct groups, and able to be easily summarized in 5 pages such that every decision made by the school district can be measured against those 5 pages. Carver calls this the “Policy Circle”, and allows for more detail as necessary, but the starting point and the thrust is that these are overarching statements of motivation which drive the direction of the entire school district; in other words, the board policy should succintly determine “who gets what benefits for how much”.
  • The board’s business should boil down to deciding whether or not anything put in front of them is in alignment with the clearly documented, widely communicated, simplified board policies.

 

The IASB’s official “Foundational Principles of Effective Governance” reflects many of the virtues espoused by Carver, going so far as to adopt Carver’s terminology and use of “Ends”. I wish to clarify that while the Board’s primary job is to govern and take responsibility that these Ends are clearly defined and adhered to, it is the people who give breath to the Ends in the first place. The Board cannot and should not adopt Ends as put forth only by the organization and/or its staff, but the board should be engaged “in an ongoing two-way conversation with the entire community. This conversation enables the Board to hear and understand the community’s educational aspirations and desires, to serve effectively as an advocate for district improvement and to inform the community of the district’s performance.”

 

The IASB has another page dedicated to “connecting with the community“; this page repeats much of what is already on the “Foundational Principles” page, but also links to a new report that strives to put forth good community relationship building practices.

 

I do have one major criticism for IASB, and I’ll have to think of a polite way to ask this question of Cathy Talbert when I talk to her next; “If the IASB is responsible for board member training, why the hell do we struggle so much to exercise that ongoing two-way communication?” Obviously this criticism does not apply to all board members – I place this on the IASB shoulders because they are the ones telling board members how to do their jobs.

 

Five seats are up for board positions in April; five out of seven. I think people sense that if they truly want to make changes to the board, now is a really good time to do so. Here is the measuring stick I am going to urge the entire voting community to consider when contemplating board members candidates and even whole slates (taken directly from the IASB “Foundational Principles”):

  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

 

This is what board members should be doing. This is what I will want successful board member candidates to set their agendas on. And for any slate, I would want them to fully embrace these guiding principles. Granted, this calls for a lot of work – we have a lot of bad habits we need to correct. I love how Carver casts the ideal board meeting; it should be lively, filled with debate, but also well kept on track (“moral compass”). A 4-hour, boring board meeting means you’re doing it wrong. A board policy manual that measures 8 inches thick when printed means you’re doing it wrong.

 

The people elect school board members to exert their will upon the school district; those five people you elect will effectively become your voice.