Gary Adkins is director / editorial services and editor of Illinois School Board Newsbulletin
School board members today give more of themselves in hours of service to their local schools than board members did five years ago. They expend more time on board work and serve a greater number of years on school boards, according to the latest survey of school board members in Illinois.
In addition to answering questions about how much time they spend on board work and the number of years they have served, board members participating in the survey answered questions about their demographics, their district, their reasons for running for the board, their views of education, and many other questions designed to elicit preferences for receiving information and professional development from IASB.
The most startling change shown in the 2013 survey response is in length of service. The number of board members serving more than 10 years rose markedly, from 20 percent in 2008 to 26.7 percent today. Likewise, the length of mid-level service (between four and 10 years) jumped from 30 percent to 37.5 percent. Meanwhile the biggest reduction went to those serving less than four years, which fell from 49 percent of board members five years ago to 36 percent of board members today.
While some might argue that the survey does not represent a complete picture of all of the nearly 6,000 board members to whom it was sent, the 2013 survey had a good response rate of 22 percent. Survey experts say that level of response provides about a 95 percent assurance of accuracy throughout the entire board member population surveyed.
Despite the demands of the job in terms of additional expenditure of hours and added years in board service, the survey found many school board members would run again.
Board members with terms that would expire in April 2013 were asked to answer questions about their election plans. Of the 1,307 overall respondents, 52 percent indicated they would be up for election. Of those whose terms were due to expire in 2013, 81 percent said they were running for re-election.
Board members with terms that would expire in 2015 also were asked to answer questions on their election plans. Of 658 respondents whose terms are due to expire in 2015, 40 percent said they expect to run for re-election. But, with the election still a couple of years ahead, perhaps it’s not surprising that 35 percent said they were undecided on running for another term.
Although the numbers have changed on their length of service and whether they want to run again, the top reason given for not running again remained unchanged: time to step aside (53 percent in 2013 vs. 48 percent in 2008). But the second-most common answer to this question has changed since the last survey. The latest survey found 19 percent of those planning to retire from board service cited the need to spend more time with family and/or jobs. The 2008 survey, in contrast, showed the second-most common reason for stepping aside then was excessive demands on schools (19 percent), which was still a significant factor in 2013 (14.4 percent).
Board service is valued
The top two reasons citizens choose to run for the school board have not changed from five years ago: they value public education and they want to make a specific improvement. In fact, those answers were even more common than in the previous survey, at 43.9 and 20.9 percent, respectively this time, up from 39.1 and 19.7 percent, respectively, in 2008.
The next two highest reasons to run for the school board were to help their children get a good education and to fulfill their civic responsibility, both coming in at 14 percent.
While they seem to run for school board for the same reasons, once elected, the number of hours members devote to board service has been steadily increasing. Starting at the low end in hours spent, 18 percent of board members in 2008 said they spend five hours or less a month on board business. By 2013, that percent had fallen to 16 percent. Contrast that with the 55 percent of respondents who gave that response in 1993.
Less dramatic is the growth in the number of board members spending six to 10 hours a month, which inched upward from 40 to 41 percent between 2008 and 2013. But while the number of those spending 11 to 15 hours a month on board work actually declined from 23 percent to 21 percent, the number spending 16 or more hours took a step up, rising from 19 percent to 22 percent. Most startling of all, however, the latter percentage had been just 1 percent in 2003.
Does the increased time demand change overall satisfaction with serving on a board? Surprisingly, no. Despite an increased time commitment, board members still overwhelmingly find their board experience satisfying. Those respondents devoting five or fewer hours to board work actually were less likely to find the job “very” or “moderately” satisfying (16 percent) than those putting in more hours. A high rating for “very” satisfying came from board members who reported spending six to 10 hours a month on board work (41 percent). But 43 percent of those putting in 11 hours or more a month found their work either “very” or “somewhat” satisfying.
Conversely, the biggest percentage (40 percent) who have been “downright disappointed” in board service said they put in six to 10 hours a month on board work. But those putting in under five hours a month only reported a “disappointment” rate of 10 percent.
More students, more work
It may come as no surprise to board members that the hours devoted to board service increase proportionately with the number of students in the district. Board members with fewer than 500 students in their district were more likely to report spending 10 hours or less a month on board meetings and preparation (79 percent) compared to just 2 percent reporting they spent more than 20 hours. (See Table A.)
The highest percentage who reported spending more than 20 hours a month on board work came from board members in districts with 5,000 or more students (31 percent), as compared with just 21 percent in the largest districts saying they spent 10 or fewer hours a month.
Women were slightly more likely to spend more time on board work per month than men, with 11 percent of women saying their board service was 20 hours or more, while men reported 20 hours or more 9 percent of the time. In all other five-hour increments, however, the percentages for hours served were more similar for men and women.
What impact on their level of satisfaction can be observed from the fact that board members spend more time attending and preparing for meetings? There really seems to be little correlation.
Approximately 86 percent of board members overall described their experience on the board as either “very” or “moderately” satisfying. Of these members, in fact, the number describing their board service as very satisfying has risen to 53.9 percent from 46.3 percent in 2008.
As was true in 2008, in 2013 the top two things board members named as the most positive features of board service were seeing students graduate and continue to grow (42 percent), and involvement in important public discussions and decisions (35 percent).
Far and away the most negative thing about being a board member is dealing with state mandates and a lack of funding, which has remained unchanged since the 2008 survey. But that negative perception has grown much more widespread, with that answer coming from 70 percent of board members today as opposed to 60 percent five years ago.
Impact of professional development
Overall, the number of board members attending a new board member workshop was down slightly from five years ago, but down markedly from the rate in 2003 when approximately 75 percent reported attending a new member workshop when first elected. As with the 2008 survey, a very low percentage, just 2 percent (28 respondents) said they thought no particular training is necessary to be a board member. In 2008, 1 percent (21 respondents) said so. But in both the 2013 and 2008 surveys, fully 88 percent said they believe board members need professional development.
The vast majority of board members and their superintendents believe in professional development for board members. Just 2 percent in both surveys said serving on the board “does not and should not” require any particular training. Another 9 percent of board members said it would be “helpful” but “is not usually essential,” while just 10 percent of superintendents responded that way.
When asked about possible mandatory training for board members, 46 percent said it should not be required, but they would support and encourage board members to seek professional development voluntarily. Superintendents responded that way 29 percent of the time.
Board members and superintendents also agreed that workshop topics and content, as well as the opportunity to network with other board members and superintendents, were the most positive features of IASB workshops.
Views on education
Now that we have looked at board service and professional development, how do responses compare on board members’ view of education issues, both in their own district and in the state? (See Table B.) Overall, 80 percent of board members were either “very” or “somewhat” optimistic about the future of education in their own districts. That’s down from 2008 levels, when 86 percent responded with those answers. A total of 3.7 percent of respondents in 2013 said they were very pessimistic because of a lack of resources or inadequate plans for improvement, but that is an increase from 1.8 percent of respondents in 2008.
That’s in stark contrast with the way they feel about education in the rest of the state. Only 24 percent of respondents were optimistic about education generally in the state of Illinois and 73 percent are pessimistic. Of the latter percentage, 37.7 were very pessimistic. Those levels of optimism are far below those of the 2008 survey, which found 37 percent were optimistic about education generally in the state.
A closer look reveals that optimism for their own district and pessimism for education in the state as a whole were pervasive throughout the state. Those responses seem to mirror the latest Phi Delta Kappan Gallup poll, released in September 2013, on the public’s views of their own schools as compared with schools nationally. According to that poll, a majority of Americans give the public schools in their community an ‘A’ or ‘B’ — the highest rating ever recorded by this poll — but fewer than one of five would give the schools nationally a ‘B’ or better.
The PDK poll shows that even more parents give high marks to the schools their children attend; 71% give them an ‘A’ or ‘B’, the highest percentage in 20 years, and up from 68 percent in 2008.
The IASB survey shows that, by enrollment, those board members with the fewest students in their district were the least optimistic about their own district. While 72 percent of respondents in districts with fewer than 500 students answered either “very” optimistic (26 percent) or “somewhat” optimistic (46 percent), all of the other enrollment categories answered with totals of 82, 85 or 80 percent “very” or “somewhat” optimistic.
Women board members were slightly more optimistic about their own district than men board members in 2013. Women respondents weighed in with 82 percent saying they were “very” or “somewhat” optimistic about their district, while men weighed in with 79 percent giving that view.
Respondents in the Northeast region also were more likely to say they were “very” optimistic about the future of education in their own district. Overall, 87 percent of those in the Northeast region said they were “very” or “somewhat” optimistic about education in their district. That compares with 78 percent who answered the same way in the Central region, 81 percent in the North region and 72 percent in the South region.
Turning to the future of education in the state, those in the South and North were more likely to be pessimistic about the future of education in Illinois, and the highest overall percentage of those with a “very” pessimistic view came from those in the South region: 45 percent.
Governing issues and processes
On the questions of board process issues and relationships with the superintendent, there still seems to be a disconnect between how much time board members think they spend talking about their own processes and performance and what their superintendents think.
While 75 percent of board members say they talk about their own process and performance for 20 minutes at least once a year (and at least 27 percent feel they do so at least every two or three months or more frequently), just 57 percent of superintendents say their board members talk about process issues at least once a year and just 11 percent report that those conversations of 20 minutes or longer occur once every two or three months or better.
The same was true in 2008 when 77 percent of board members said they spoke about processes and performance at least once a year or more often, but 64 percent of superintendents said they observed those levels of conversation. Keep in mind, however, that in both sets of survey data the superintendents and board members who responded were not necessarily from the same school districts.
Board members’ perception of their superintendent’s performance has not varied since the first survey was conducted in 1993. Consistently, board members gave their superintendent 84 percent or above on issues of curriculum, finances, relationship with the board and ethics. Although slightly lower, they still rated their superintendent’s performance at 70 percent or better on relations with the community and staff and leadership that creates support among the staff and community for the district’s mission. (See Table C.)
A typical board member
Overall, the picture of an Illinois school board member has changed very little since IASB began surveying its members in 1993.
Respondents in the 2013 survey create a picture of a typical board member as slightly younger, slightly better educated, more likely to be married than single, definitely more techno-savvy and earning more, but less likely to have children in school than in 2008. The face of that board member is still more likely to be Caucasian (90.6 percent) but is more likely to be female (42.6 percent) than when the survey began in 1993.
While board members taking the survey still are predominantly Caucasian, the number of African-American respondents has risen by more than two percentage points from 3.2 percent to 5.6 percent. Representation from those identifying themselves as Hispanic on the board has also risen slightly, from 1.2 percent to 1.4 percent.
How the survey was conducted
Unlike the 2008 IASB survey, the 2013 survey was conducted entirely online, with one survey instrument for board members and another for superintendents. Survey responses were received from 1,354 board members and 429 superintendents for participation rates of approximately 22 percent and 50 percent, respectively.
The response rate represents considerably fewer board member participants than in previous years. The 1993 survey elicited 2,748 board member responses, compared with 2,469 responses in 1998, 2,008 in 2003, and 1,668 in 2008. In contrast, superintendent rates of response were up a bit as 47 percent of district leaders (404) responded to the 2008 survey.
For survey purposes, the state was divided into four regions to tabulate results. The regions were divided along IASB division lines: Northeast: West Cook, North Cook, South Cook, Lake, and DuPage; North: Blackhawk, Kishwaukee, Northwest, Three Rivers, and Starved Rock; Central: Western, Central Illinois Valley, Two Rivers, Illini, Abe Lincoln, and Corn Belt; South: Wabash Valley, Southwestern, Kaskaskia, Egyptian, and Shawnee.
As a whole, board members from the Northeast and Central regions were slightly more likely to answer the survey, and women were more likely than men to answer the survey. IASB’s database shows board members are split 61 percent men and 39 percent women in 2013, a change from the 64:36 ratio in 2008.
Since the first survey in 1993, the number of female respondents has increased by 6 percent, from 37 percent in 1993 to 40 percent in both 1998 and 2003 and finally to 43 percent in 2008 and 2013.
IASB is grateful to the school board members and superintendents who took the time to complete and return the lengthy surveys.
Technology use on the rise
Nowhere do changes in the past 20 years seem more pronounced than in asking board members questions about their use of technology. Wording in the 1998 survey sounds quaint if not archaic when asking board members how often and where they accessed the World Wide Web
By 2003, 55 percent of board members reported having Internet access both at work and at home, as compared to just 22.2 percent in 1998. By 2008, the number accessing the Internet at work and at home had grown to 63.4 percent. In 2013, 66.9 percent of board members said they accessed the Internet both at home and at work.
In 2008, 27 respondents or 1.6 percent said they did not have Internet access, but they planned to acquire it soon. That number had shrunk to just .1 percent in the most recent survey or just one respondent in 2013. As another indication of changes in technology, 50.4 percent of respondents in 2013 reported that they had Internet access via a mobile device (smartphone or tablet).