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Chapter 1

Beginning Your School Board Service


1:1 I've been elected. Now what?

Congratulations! You are ready to take office! You’ve joined the ranks of nearly 2,800 locally elected school board members in Wisconsin dedicated to helping our students succeed and ultimately become productive citizens. You hold positions as:

  • An individual school board member;
  • A member of a board made up of other members; and
  • A member of the district leadership team composed of school board members, the superintendent and other administrators in the district.

As a school board member, you are a representative of the community and a leader of the district. You are a steward of your district’s children and its tax dollars. You are an advocate of public education and an educated public.

To familiarize yourself with your district, use the WASB What Every New School Board Member Needs Know Guide.

1:2 When do I start?

Elected school board members take office, provided they have taken and filed the official oath, on the fourth Monday in April. (See sections 120.06(4) and 120.42(2) of the state statutes.)

For appointees, the school board should specify a date in connection with its appointment decision. A person selected to fill a vacancy, upon being notified of their selection, is deemed to have accepted the selection to the vacant board position unless he or she files a written refusal to serve within five days after notification. Assuming the appointee does not refuse to serve, the appointee must take and file the official (i.e., written) oath “on or prior to the day provided for taking office.” (See section 120.06(10) of the state statutes.)

Administration of oath: Don’t forget to take the oath of office! Under state law, a newly elected or appointed school board member must take and file the official oath of office on or prior to the fourth Monday in April. (See section 120.06(4) of the state statutes.) This requirement also applies to an incumbent who is reelected to the school board. The school district clerk, a notary public or other authorized person may administer the oath of office. The forms are set out in section 19.01 of the state statutes. The official oath form (EL-154) can be found on the Wisconsin Elections Commission website.

1:3 What exactly do school boards do?

School boards lead and govern the schools and educational programs of our local, public school districts. That leadership role is performed as part of a team that includes the superintendent (also called the district administrator). The leadership team, in turn, operates within a unique framework of authority, duties and powers that are established by a variety of state and federal laws and supplemented by local policy decisions.

There are five types of public school districts in Wisconsin: K-12 common school districts, K-8 common school districts, union high school districts, unified school districts and first-class city districts (i.e., Milwaukee Public Schools). If you are not sure if your district is common or unified, ask your superintendent.

While the different types of school districts and their boards share many general characteristics, there are some differences in the specific powers and responsibilities that are assigned to them. All school districts and school boards are alike, however, in that student learning and student achievement constitute the centerpiece of their mission.

Keep in mind the school board’s job is to focus on the ends while the superintendent focuses on the ways and means to attain the ends. In other words, the board oversees the education of students and is responsible for school district operations but does not directly run the district’s day-to-day operations.

More detailed information on the leadership role of school boards and individual board members, as well as information on their powers, duties, and authority is available from the WASB.

1:4 What are some of the powers and duties of the board?

School board and school board member roles and responsibilities are determined by state and federal law. These laws define what must be done and identify certain items which must be decided locally. Some of the major state laws that determine the powers and duties of the board are:

  • Section 120.12 enumerates a list of specific duties of a school board in common and union high school districts.
  • Section 120.13 enumerates a list of specific powers of a school board in common and union high school districts.
  • Section 120.10 enumerates a list of specific powers of an annual meeting (which, for unified school districts, are powers of the school board).
  • Section 120.44(2) gives unified school districts the powers and duties of the common school board and annual meeting.
  • Other statutes (particularly in chapters 118, 120 and 121) create other powers and duties. In addition, Chapter 119 has provisions that exclusively cover the Milwaukee Public Schools.
1:5 Now that I'm a board member, what does my community expect of me?

As a new board member, you are expected to make decisions on major issues that affect the students and citizens of your community. As with every new job, it takes time to learn the ropes. You need to take time to learn about your job and the issues while performing your job. Some of the activities you will be expected to do are: attend board meetings, participate on committees, attend school functions, keep yourself informed about issues, pursue professional development opportunities for yourself and your school board, and interact with your fellow board members and the superintendent. These activities require a significant amount of time, but it is time extremely well spent when you consider that you are helping to shape the future of the children in your community.

1:6 I'm overwhelmed. How do I learn my job?

With help from your fellow board members, the superintendent, administrative staff and the WASB. The WASB offers an array of services, training and resources that address current and emerging local needs including innovative training and leadership activities.

The WASB team of experts range in skills from advocacy, communications, leadership development and board governance, legal and policy. Please review the WASB At Your Service brochure for an overview of services and products. The WASB can customize a response to a district’s unique needs and requirements.

Most importantly, don’t hesitate to ask questions. Nobody expects you to have all the answers, and your colleagues and superintendent welcome the opportunity to get you up to speed.

1:7 How much time can I expect to spend on school board responsibilities?

The time required to complete your school board responsibilities will most likely vary by time of year. It will depend on how many meetings are scheduled, which committees you serve on and what issues are going on in the district at the time. For example, if the district is going through a building project, hiring a superintendent or developing the school district budget, the time needed for board meetings may be more extensive. On average, however, you can anticipate spending about 9-12 hours a month on board service.

1:8 How do the school board's responsibilities differ from the superintendent's responsibilities?

The administration’s job is to run the district. The board’s job is to make sure the district is run well. The school board is responsible for establishing goals, setting policy and overseeing resources for the school district. The superintendent works for the school board and translates the policy into action. Consistent with the goals established by the school board, the superintendent and staff make the day-to-day decisions that affect the operation of the school district, deploying board-approved resources, assigning staff and documenting results.

1:9 Where, or who, do I go to for information?

The board president and/or superintendent usually can answer your questions on protocol or procedure as well as issues facing the board. Other board members, both current and past, may also be good resources, but be aware of Open Meetings Law issues with such conversations (see question 2:5). The WASB is also a good source for information and advice and has staff ready to answer your questions. Visit WASB’s website,, for in-depth information on many legislative, governance, legal and policy issues.

1:10 Are school boards required to have officers? What are their duties?

Yes. If the board of a common or union high school district has more than three members, it must elect a president, vice president, treasurer and clerk each year. (See section 120.05(1)(c) of the state statutes.)

The school board of a unified school district must elect a school district president, vice president, clerk and treasurer from among its members, and a school board secretary who need not be a member of the school board. (See section 120.43(1) of the state statutes.)

The election of officers shall occur on or within 30 days after the fourth Monday in April. (See sections 120.05(1)(c) and 120.43(1) of the state statutes.)

Wisconsin statutes outline the basic duties of school board officers. For example, see sections 120.15 – 120.17 (e.g., “School district president; duties”). Please note that many other statutes come into play.

In addition, local board policy can assign additional responsibilities and provide additional guidance to the board’s officers, but policy cannot conflict with the statutes (i.e., district policy cannot be used to “opt out” of mandatory legal duties).

1:11 How do I translate all educational jargon and acronyms I hear at each board meeting?

There are a lot of abbreviations and acronyms for educational terms. This handbook includes a glossary of common education terms as well as a list of commonly used acronyms you may encounter throughout your school board service (see Chapters 9-11). For jargon or acronyms that are not included here, consider asking your superintendent or other board members.

When communicating with your constituents, attempt to avoid abbreviations and acronyms for educational terms so stakeholders can more easily comprehend district communications.

1:12 What are CESAs? How can CESAs serve our school board?

In 1963, Cooperative Educational Service Agencies (CESAs) were created to serve as a link between school districts within the state and between the districts and the state government. There is a total of 12 CESAs within Wisconsin. For a complete list of all 12 CESA’s please view DPI’s website here.

Each CESA serves a particular region of Wisconsin and is governed by 11 Board of Control members. The Board of Control members are elected at the CESA annual convention, and regular school board members may also serve as Board of Control members.  

CESAs provide many different services for individual school boards such as professional development for teachers, support staff, principals, and district leaders. They may also assist Districts in cooperative purchasing to save money and in sharing special education teachers and other professionals to meet District needs. Districts should contact their regional CESA for more information.

1:13 What is the board's role when there are problems with an administrator, teacher or other staff person?

The only employee who answers directly to the school board is the superintendent. Accordingly, if there are concerns about the performance of another administrator, a teacher or other staff person that are unresolved after going through the appropriate steps of the chain of command, the board should raise these concerns with the superintendent in a properly posted closed session. It is the superintendent who has the responsibility to handle these issues. Take care not to cross the line into micromanaging the relationship with staff. It’s the superintendent’s job to lead and manage the employees in the district.

School boards may also have a review process established that enables board members to provide input to the superintendent regarding the other administrators. The superintendent may take collective input into account, but it is ultimately the superintendent who completes the final evaluation of the administrator.

If there is a problem with the superintendent, on the other hand, the board needs to address the problem through the evaluation process or through informal feedback via the board president or the board as a whole.

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