Seven tips for new board members

By Courtney Stillman
Courtney Stillman is a former board member for Frankfort CCSD 157C, where she served on the board of education for 11 years and as president for six years. She currently represents school boards as an attorney at Hauser, Izzo, Petrarca, Gleason & Stillman, LLC.

Congratulations on becoming a member of the Board of Education! Your new role is a significant and rewarding one as you make important policy decisions that enhance educational opportunities for students and benefit children and your community. From the perspective of a former board member and school board president, these tips are intended to prepare you for success in the board room.

1. Your role is to determine policy for your district.

Your role as a school board member is to make policy for the district and allow the administration to implement those policies. The superintendent you have hired will report back to you on the progress of the goals and initiatives you determine as a board. It is not your role to micromanage the daily work of the district, but to oversee the policy of the district. If you receive concerns, ideas, or complaints from parents, teachers, or community members, you should alert your board president or your superintendent rather than handling the situation yourself. Your board president will follow the chain of command, in which situations are first addressed at the school building level and then with upper level administration if necessary.

2. Your school board president is the board’s spokesperson.

It is important for the board of education to speak to the community with one voice. The board president will preside over your monthly meetings and will, in most cases, speak with the press if necessary. Although votes on a specific agenda item may not be unanimous, the majority vote is the decision and must be respected by the entire board and conveyed to the community by your board president or superintendent.

3. Review your meeting agenda and board packet and come prepared to the meeting.

Your board president will meet with the superintendent to set the agenda for board meetings, and you will be provided with the agenda and information regarding agenda items before the meeting. Make sure to review this information before the meeting and come prepared to make decisions. To make the meeting more efficient and productive, and to avoid surprises, you should determine if you have questions and ask them of the board president or appropriate administrator before the meeting. This will allow time to research your question and provide you with the most comprehensive information to support your decision-making. This will not only aid in your thoughtful determination, but you will also appear before your fellow board members and the community to be the informed and knowledgeable board member that you seek to be.

4. Know and follow board policies, agreements, and procedures that govern your meetings.

Your board president may facilitate a new board member orientation, but if this is not offered, contact him or her to ensure that you know the procedures for your board meeting. Some meetings are run quite formally; others are more casual. Following established board meeting protocol makes meetings more efficient and respectful towards other board members, the community, and the administration. Furthermore, board meetings and decisions are public matters. Board members need to be careful about not discussing items through personal emails or texts and about voting outside of meetings.

5. Keep private information confidential.

Certain agenda items, such as litigation, student and personnel matters, and collective bargaining take place in closed session because of the sensitivity of the information. This information must be kept confidential by board members and discussed only within the closed session forum.

6. Learn why your fellow members are part of the board.

One key to successfully working with other board members is understanding their perspective, why they sought election to the school board, and what they want to accomplish. This understanding may facilitate respectful board discussions, even if not all board members agree. After our board reorganized, when I was board president, I appointed one member each month as “Board Member of the Month.” For the member’s assigned monthly meeting, the board member completed a short questionnaire about his or her educational background, family, personal hero, hobbies, and other interests outside the boardroom. Each member also indicated on the questionnaire his or her reason for running for the board and stated his or her wish for the school district. As a result, board members learned some basic personal information about each other and learned each other’s interests and motivations regarding the school board. Another year, at one of our board’s self-evaluation workshops with IASB, each board member wrote what he or she wished his or her legacy to be on the school board. We shared our legacies with each other at the self-evaluation and we kept a summary of our legacies for review at a later date. Developing legacies again provided appreciation for, and understanding of, other members’ perspectives. Even if you don’t agree with another board member, at least you may understand why they are asserting a particular position or voting in a certain way. Through this process, your superintendent also gains information about board members’ perspectives and goals for the district.

7. Engage in regular, periodic self-evaluation.

Taking time to evaluate your board’s effectiveness is critical. Doing a self-evaluation with IASB not only allows your board to determine if it is following the foundational principles of effective boards, but also allows you to identify and address any issues interfering with board member or board-superintendent relationships. The comments section of the evaluation may provide particular insight into board members’ beliefs about the board’s efficiency, effectiveness, and teamwork. Self-evaluation may provide a forum to discover board member concerns and to resolve them before they negatively impact board success. As a result of your self-evaluation, you may agree upon board goals, procedures, or protocols. For example, after one self-evaluation, in which some members voiced frustration with officer elections, our board amended policy to include a specific procedure of meeting before the board’s reorganization to discuss which board members were interested in officer positions and what officer and board liaison positions entail. Our board also used self-evaluation to in-service new board members on board expectations and professionalism.

Dr. Larry Reynolds, in The Trust Effect: Creating the High Trust, High Performance Organization (People Skills for Professionals), wrote “it is the relationships between people, and not the people themselves, which distinguish a great organization from a mediocre one. In fact, the quality of relationships can mean the difference between success and failure.” Improved board relations assist with effective, efficient decision-making that benefits the district.