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Chapter 4

Working with the Board


4:1 Should I ask for a mentor?

Many boards will have a designated person who mentors the new board member. Serving as a mentor may be a defined responsibility for one of the officers, such as the vice president, or it may be a rotating position.

A mentor will orient the new board member prior to their first board meeting. The mentor will also check in with the new board member periodically during the year to explain key activities, such as the process for evaluating the superintendent or the budgeting process. If you find your board does not have a person designated as mentor, you might suggest it, particularly if you prefer working this way. Whether you are new to the board, new to being a board officer or just would like an additional resource, WASB is available for support.

Contact WASB Member Services Director Ben Niehaus for more information.

4:2 When are issues serious enough to bring to the board?

You are the link between the school district and the community. You should be aware of issues confronting other districts that could become an issue in your district. You must also filter what you bring to the board for consideration to be sure it truly requires board attention. If you are hearing concerns from community members, you might want to bring that issue to the superintendent or board president first. An issue or activity that is counter to board policy should be brought to the attention of the president or the superintendent.

When in doubt, feel free to discuss concerns with the superintendent or, particularly if the school board has at least five members, the board president. They can help decide if the board needs to be proactive about a particular issue. Remember to be careful of “walking quorums” when having conversations with the board president or fellow board members. (See question 2:5 for more on “walking quorums.”)

4:3 What is the committee structure, function and role?

State law does not require the use of standing or special-purpose committees of the board itself. The use of such committees is a matter of local policy and left to the discretion of school boards. (See question 3:14 for examples of state- and federal-mandated committees.)

The composition of board committees and how committee members and chairs are appointed is a matter of local policy. Some boards operate as a committee of the whole where all issues or activities are addressed by the entire board together. Members of boards that choose this method generally receive the same information at the same time and have the authority to deliberate on each issue. Other boards function with a well-defined committee structure where board members serve on several committees, which first address issues or activities before they come to the full board.

Board members are appointed to standing committees by the president and serve one-year terms. Ad hoc committees or task forces can also be established to deal with a one-time issue, and their length of term is often less than one year. A task force is a good approach to invite staff and community members to offer their insights and/or special expertise on a particular issue.

The committee structure works best when the board fully trusts all the board members and is willing to accept the work and recommendation of this smaller subset of the board. This does not mean the full board cannot ask questions and become informed prior to voting on a motion at a board meeting; in fact, all need to become informed in order to vote responsibly. Rehashing the entire work of the committee, though, defeats the committee’s purpose.

Boards that use a committee structure feel it saves time and allows each board member to delve more deeply into fewer areas. Some boards find they are able to deal with more issues with this approach and board meetings are more reasonable in length. Possible standing committees include policy, finance, curriculum, public information, students and athletics, buildings and grounds, and personnel. None of these committees are required by law.

Keep in mind that committees or task forces report to the board, not to the community or media. They should not take on a life of their own. One last important point to be aware of is that, with very limited exceptions, formal committees are subject to the Open Meetings Law requirements even when there is no quorum of the full membership of the board.

4:4 How can I survive politics?

Don’t think of it as surviving politics; instead, view it as cultivating relationships. School governance is founded on the belief that a group of very different people representing various constituencies in their district can make better decisions than any one person alone. That diversity is the board’s strength.

With this in mind, it’s best to be open-minded about the opinions of your fellow board members. Your goal should not be to convert them to your point of view, but rather to determine the best solution to an issue by working together to try and accommodate all views. You want the students to be the “winners” — not one board member or another.

When you do not prevail in a nonunanimous decision, try to keep the perspective that reasonable minds can disagree as to the best approach to almost any school issue. Also, not every decision sets things in stone for all time. There may be an opportunity for the leadership team to revisit the issue at some point in the future.

4:5 How can I best assimilate into the team?

You may join a board with members who have been together for a number of years. As the “new kid on the block,” it will take time to become part of the team. Talk with your new colleagues. Respect their expertise. Listen and observe. Ask questions. Do your homework. Make recommendations.

4:6 How does a board assess whether it is working well as a team?

The WASB provides two board assessment tools.

The first is a comprehensive Annual Board Development Tool survey developed in conjunction with School Perceptions, a Wisconsin-based survey company. Aligned to the WASB Essential Elements of Governance, the survey helps boards identify their areas of strength and alignment as well as where further dialogue and discussion is needed. The tool is complimentary for boards to use and each district can access its own results. Access codes are needed for the tool, which are distributed by the WASB each fall.

The board can request an analysis of its results from School Perceptions. For a fee, School Perceptions will provide the district with information on how the board compares to other boards which have used the survey tool that year. If requested, the WASB can provide an additional analysis that suggests the next steps.

The second tool is the WASB School Board Meeting Self-Evaluation Tool. It is a simple fillable pdf survey designed for boards to assess whether their meetings are running as effectively and efficiently as possible.

4:7 What should a board do when it is not working well as a team?

Open communication is critical to the proper functioning of your board. If you feel your board is not functioning well, it may be appropriate to suggest a legal and/or governance workshop where the board reviews its ground rules, board policies on board operations and board/administrative relations that establish how the leadership team will function. If these ground rules and policies are not effective, then consider modifications to them. Consider developing a specific set of policies that address board operational protocol, board code of conduct and board/administrator relations. You may want to hire a facilitator to assist your board in improving the board’s working relations. The WASB can help with a custom board retreat tailored to your board’s specific situation.

4:8 How do school boards make decisions?

School board members are trustees, responsible for a trust established with the community. When making decisions, the board should seek the advice, where appropriate, of the district’s administrators, teachers, employees, community members and experts such as the school district’s legal counsel, financial advisor or auditor. With this information, the board can act only during legally called board meetings. Therefore, it is important that board members do their “homework” prior to attending a board meeting so that they can discuss the issue and be prepared to take action at the meeting.

4:9 What is the most important consideration when making a decision?

The primary consideration is the tangible impact the decision will have on your district’s students. If you understand the facts and relevant data and you keep the needs of all students in mind when making decisions, you will undoubtedly make good decisions. Remember, your first responsibility is to every student in your district. Keeping this in mind will greatly assist you in making the right decisions despite pressures that certain constituent groups may exert.

4:10 What can or can't school board members reveal to each other?

School board members will learn information that is confidential and should not be discussed outside of a board’s closed session with friends, family or other unauthorized individuals. This does not limit discussions among school board members at appropriate times in conformity with the Open Meetings Law. Board members should feel they can discuss issues among each other that are before and within the jurisdiction of the board.

4:11 When I'm in the minority on the board, how can I influence the other board members to consider my point of view?

Research the issue, use data, practice patience, disagree respectfully, and develop your skills. Genuinely listen to your colleagues. Don’t interrupt. Wait to be recognized, then make your point, but don’t deliver a monologue. Argue primarily from facts, not emotion. Concisely identify the problem or the potential opportunity. State your recommendation and explain how it helps attain a district goal. Finally, be prepared to compromise and do not actively undermine the board’s ultimate decision.

4:12 Should the school board set goals for itself each year?

Yes, it is a good idea for a board to have goals for the effectiveness and efficiency of board operations and evaluate them on a yearly basis. In this way, you have a scheduled forum for discussing the proficiency of your board and how to improve it.

4:13 Are there term limits for board members?

No. However, the opportunity to make a change on the board occurs annually during the school board election when community members can choose to run for seats on the board whose terms have expired or to fill the remaining term of a recent vacancy. A board with both new and seasoned members can provide the best of both worlds: new thinking is introduced while institutional history is maintained.

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