What to expect the first year

Compiled by Theresa Kelly Gegen
Theresa Kelly Gegen is editor of the Illinois School Board Journal.

In 2017, The Illinois School Board Journal asked experienced school board members their thoughts on the early days of school board service, and sought their advice for new board members. Their sage, practical, and encouraging remarks were well-received, and we decided to do it again. As approximately 1,200 newbies settle into their seats for their first meetings, the Journal again asked experts to light the way for them, and tell what new members can expect in the weeks and months ahead. Read on for some honest, helpful, and supportive advice for new board members.

What do you wish you had known before you joined your board of education?

Many respondents indicated that they “wish they had” a greater understanding of the roles and responsibilities of being a board member. This includes honest admissions about what they, at one time, misunderstood. New board members can expect to understand this feeling and use this advice to overcome it.

“I wish I had had a better understanding of the role of a board member and the function of the board of education. I joined the board with many misconceptions and quickly learned that the job is different and more complex than it had appeared.”
— Michael Rodriguez

“The scope of a school board’s authority, I was under the impression school boards had much more control over everyday events.”
— Terrie Golwitzer

“I think it would have been helpful to know just how little a school board has to do in the day to day operation of the school district. Hire the right superintendent and stand back. Let him/her work.”
— Rob Rodewald

“I wish I had known how school boards actually functioned.”
— Mable Chapman

“I wish I would have known all of the different areas that school boards focus on in order to govern the district. From finance to grounds to staffing issues and so much more, school boards provide governance and lead from the balcony with full respect of those on the dance floor.”
— Kenna Dunlap Johnson

Others discussed specifics, most often finance and budgeting, when asked what they wished they had known before they started board service. To help with this common refrain, this issue of the Journal also offers a beginner’s guide to school finance starting on page 6.

“A better understanding of how school finances work.”
— Steve Bouslog

“I needed to know more about state funding.”
— Denis Ryan

“I wish I would have realized before election that so much of school board work is focused on finances and meeting budget restraints rather than what I expected —working on academic issues. And — having to be a part of school expulsions was heart-wrenching. I had never thought of having to experience that . ”
— Susie Kopacz

“The superintendent is your only employee. Always carry a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order and the allowable closed meeting discussion topics. ”
— Carolyn Wilhight

“I wish I had known something more about school finance.”
— Gwaine Dianne Williams

For others, it was information specific to their district that they found they had the most to learn.

“I wish I would have known some of the main goals and objectives as well as struggles the district was working on and facing before I became a board member.”
— Colette Binger

“Being a teacher and attending board meetings for three years before I decided to run, I knew what to expect. But if one is considering running for a school board they should acquaint themselves with the issues facing the district and be prepared to offer some concrete solutions to those issues.”
— Juanita Jordan

“The language of curriculum. There are many acronyms.”
— Tom Vickers

“How long it takes to make real change in large districts.”
— Bob Spatz

“How different it is to communicate under the Open Meetings Act.”
—  Karen Freese

“How little community members care, little or no involvement.”
— Gary Knight

“I wish I would have known that having the title of school board member sets you apart, and once you have that title, when you walk into a school building in the district you are treated differently (always treated well, but given preferential treatment). I went from being an active parent involved in many ways to a school board member and I felt a difference. It was almost as if the people I had known for years held me at arm’s length now, reticent at times to share so willingly and openly as before. People I knew were being guarded in their approach. On the other hand, there were those that immediately wanted to take advantage of knowing me personally to push agendas. It was a real eye-opener to me to see the change in how people treated me once elected.”
— Susie Kopacz

“That it is a big learning process and there is a lot to learn.”
— Janice Roeder

What can new board members expect in their first 100 days?

Some board members again offered practical advice to board work during the first 100 days. As in 2017, several experienced members referred to it being “overwhelming.” But, as was the case in 2017, new board members can rest assured that “overwhelmed” is normal, because there is a lot to learn. However, as our respondents assure, there is also lots of help.

“A learning curve. You arrive in the middle of the budgeting process. That brings a great amount of new information. ”
— Tom Vickers

“Meetings, hopefully not too many controversial items at first. ”
— Lisa Anthony

“School board members should expect to feel somewhat overwhelmed with the amount of information, but also have no fear, that just like a new job, they will begin to put the pieces together in time with proper orientation and mentoring.”
— Kenna Dunlap Johnson

“A lot of information including a preliminary budget to review, mandatory training, and something unexpected. ”
— Bob Spatz

“New board members should plan to get some of their mandatory training done within the first 100 days (FOIA, Open Meetings Act). Also, it would be great to sit down with the superintendent for a briefing or training as to what to expect, ask questions and go through a typical board meeting agenda and some other items. ”
— Colette Binger

“Orientation to the school district and board of education; decide which board committee to join. ”
— Gwaine Dianne Williams

“At least three board meetings, learning what the board’s work is, getting up to speed on current topics and issues that the board is working on. ”
— Janice Roeder

“Learning about what you don’t yet understand. ”
— Lanell Gilbert

“Being challenged to ‘get’ how finances work, and it will take you much longer than 100 days to learn. Be patient. ”
— Steve Bouslog

“They can probably be pretty overwhelmed with all they need to learn in regards to school finance, school law, and the Open Meetings Act. I highly recommend new board members take as much training as soon as possible to shorten the learning curve. ”
— Susie Kopacz

“Ask for a copy of your policy manual and use it, it will answer most of your questions about your role. Take the OMA training right away and review the communication guidelines in your policy manual. Review the mission, vision, and goals of the district. Ask your superintendent to sit down with you and give you an overview of the district along with a tour of the buildings. Spend time with an experienced board member and talk to them about why they serve and what they have/hope to accomplish. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions! ”
— Karen Freese

“In the first 100 days, new members will learn the role of a board member.”
— Janet Rogers

“How the board actually works, and its responsibilities. ”
— Gary Knight

“To be able to fix any issues we have as a board to get the school on the right track. ”
— Kimberly Grivakis

Others, as with the previous question, took a more personal approach to their advice for the first 100 days.

“New board members can expect a period of confusion, as they take on the task of learning their new role. If they are serious about doing a good job, they can expect a period of investigation and learning, soaking up as much information as they can in a short period of time. ”
— Michael Rodriguez

“They will be overwhelmed and confused. Please ask questions and insist that acronyms be explained. ”
— Terrie Golwitzer

“To become aware of why they became a board member and how their expectations align with reality. ”
— Mable Chapman

“They can expect to be bombarded with a plethora of information in a short period of time. ”
— Juanita Jordan

“Questions. Lots of questions. ”
— Rob Rodewald

“Listen, learn, and don’t be afraid to ask why. ”
— Denis Ryan

What are the biggest challenges a board member faces in the first full year?

The work of the school board doesn’t stop for new members. The first year puts new board members through a normal cycle of board work, on top of the training required by state law and the learning curve of being a newbie. Our experienced board member respondents offer a variety of ways to deal with those challenges.

“Back to the learning curve. Be patient. You are learning your role as a board member, while also learning about the ‘ business’ of education. That is not a reference to just budgeting, but all aspects of the administration of a school district. But remember your role. ”
— Tom Vickers

“The biggest challenge is trying to fit in. Sometimes you’re a square trying to fit in a round hole. It’s ok to be square. ”
— Denis Ryan

“The biggest challenges will likely include getting familiar with the board meetings; learning how to handle questions from teachers, community members, and stakeholders; learning that everything you do ties back to policies and procedures; and figuring out the chain of command. The most important challenge during the first year is to learn that you only have board member status (can be perceived as power) when you are collectively joined as a board, not individually. The best job you can provide the district is to govern and learn that role. ”
— Colette Binger

“The district finances are complex and hard to understand. It takes quite a long time to understand even just a little bit of it. ”
— Lisa Anthony

“Finances, teacher shortage, and declining enrollment. ”
— Janet Rogers

“Understanding how a tax levy and a budget are two different things. ”
— Terrie Golwitzer

“Understanding board policy, becoming familiar with the superintendent and introduced to the superintendent’s cabinet (department heads). Be sure to schedule all board meeting dates so as not to conflict with other important personal and business events. ”
— Gwaine Dianne Williams

“Learning school governance. ”
— Lanell Gilbert

“Learning that they are only one vote of seven and sometimes you have to compromise to come to a consensus on any given issue. ”
— Juanita Jordan

“Getting a handle on what’s actually happening in the district. There’s a lot of information out there, but until you are part of the decision making you don’t really know what’s going on. Understanding school financing will always be a struggle.”
— Rob Rodewald

“Learning a lot of information, especially learning that the board consists of seven members and each member acts as part of the team, not alone. Learning that confidential information is not to be shared with family, friends or co-workers. Learning to value and respect the opinions and ideas of the other board members.”
— Janice Roeder

“1) Finances; 2) Learning the role of an effective board and board member.”
— Steve Bouslog

“New board members should be aware that just because they won an election, they are not automatically wise in all things relating to schools and administration of such. I was guilty of feeling I knew it all already, which was a total detriment to my ability to govern or lead. It did not take long at all for me to lose that feeling though.”
— Susie Kopacz

“Understanding the school and the staff and what are all the needs in the school.”
— Kimberly Grivakis

“Understanding the limits of their influence, the speed at which things can happen, and the necessary, but sometimes counter-intuitive, restrictions of the Open Meetings Act, and the reality of governing versus campaigning.”
— Bob Spatz

“Comprehending protocols and procedures and limitations.”
— Gary Knight

“Learning all there is to know. Policy is not always a fun thing to read, but it’s the heart of your job as a board member. You may be frustrated with what you feel is a limited ability to effect change, but work with the system and with your superintendent.”
— Karen Freese

“The biggest challenge the new board member faces is attempting to function effectively without knowledge of or familiarity with the large number of federal and state laws and statutes, as well as district and board policies and contracts that govern our actions as a board of education.”
— Michael Rodriguez

“I believe that some of the biggest challenges are understanding their role in the district. Also, learning that coming onto a school board with an agenda could cause frustration as agendas do not work for successful school board work because of all of the various areas we have to focus on, policies, governance, etc. I also think that finding your voice can be challenging, so just remember that it gets better in time after you start to put all of the pieces together.”
— Kenna Dunlap Johnson

“Knowing what you can and cannot do as a board member-realizing that you are just one vote and cannot effect change by yourself.”
— Mable Chapman

“One last thought: don’t immediately pair up with those you think are like-minded. Set your own course. Do your own research and make your own decisions based on all the facts. Being persuaded by fellow strong and vocal board members, or being influenced by outside groups or organizations, or even bargaining units within the district can be detrimental to a board members objectivity. Read your board packets in entirety. Know the facts, do some research and don’t go into a vote with your own agenda as a priority. Governing on a board is about compromise and seeking the truth and the best for the entire district and the community.”
— Susie Kopacz

What other information would you share with a new member to school board service?

Among the multitude of resources available for all board members, our experienced school board members recommend several for newbies. These include mentoring, working with fellow board members to familiarize yourself with this new role, and taking advantage of IASB’s offerings. Often mentioned is the Joint Annual Conference of the Illinois Association of School Boards, Illinois Association of School Administrators (IASA), and Illinois Association of School Business Officials (Illinois ASBO). Informally known as “Triple-I,” it is held every November in Chicago. Respondents also recommend Division Meetings, which are held in each of IASB’s 21 divisions in the spring and fall .

“My advice is to attend as many workshops as possible, listen and follow leads of experienced board members making sound decisions.”
— Janet Rogers

“As board president, I typically sit down one-on-one with a new board member to explain and help him or her to understand the function of the board and the role of the individual board member. I would share IASB materials, and encourage the new board member to attend the spring and fall dinner meetings and the Triple-I conference, as well as take advantage of IASB training opportunities.”
— Michael Rodriguez

“Learn about governance and policies.”
— Denis Ryan

“Make sure to attend the IASB Division Meetings as you will meet great people and learn invaluable information. Go to the Chicago conference for board member professional development and take part in board member evaluations. We expect our teachers to do professional development and do evaluations, these are crucial for a board as well. You only employ one person, the superintendent. Work closely with him/her. Be a team of eight, work collaboratively with the superintendent.”
— Colette Binger

“Senior citizens tend to be more negative towards the schools due to their property taxes. I would recommend taking the IASB classes for a new school board member and found them extremely helpful and knowledgeable.”
— Lisa Anthony

“Know your IASB Field Services Director and staff; attend your IASB Regional meetings and IASB annual conference; attend NSBA annual conference; read IASB and NSBA magazines to be abreast of trends and legislative decisions.”
— Mable Chapman

“If not familiar with the school district’s curriculum department, get to know them and ask as many questions as you can. Understand you will be on a learning curve for a long time. Our district prepares a very thorough orientation.”
— Gwaine Dianne Williams

“Get as much training as you can.”
— Lanell Gilbert

“Make sure you attend all the classes offered to new board members.”
— Juanita Jordan

“Attend division meetings, attend Triple-I, take advantage of online professional development, and think about/review your role as a board member before every meeting .
—  Tom Vickers

“I would convey to new board members that it is highly essential to show up, speak up and be a participating member of your board. It is also very important to attend IASB division events, the Joint Annual Conference, and any other IASB learning opportunities in person or online. I would share that the IASB website has a wealth of information and resources for board members.”
— Janice Roeder

“Attend the Conference Request copies of Illinois School Law, school policy, and Illinois School Finance. Partner with a school board member from another district. Get the phone number of your IASB representative. He or she is a great resource.
— Carolyn Wilhight

“The IASB training, Division Meetings, and the Triple-I conference are worth the time, and, if your board is interested, board self-evaluations are long-term time savers.”
— Bob Spatz

“I highly recommend attending all the workshops or doing all the IASB training modules online. They are full of pertinent and valuable information for school board members. They helped me see my position from a professional and more informed mindset. The November convention was invaluable to me as a new Board member. Seeing all the other districts, sharing ideas and concerns, and the top speakers for the general sessions were outstanding. In addition, the Kishwaukee dinner meetings I found to be excellent, Not one time did I ever walk away thinking that was a waste of my time, I truly felt the agendas and speakers provided a wealth of information and knowledge to me as a board member. It also gave me opportunities for networking with other district board members.”
— Susie Kopacz

“I have always learned something useful for our board and district at the IASB annual conference. Make sure you attend as often as you can.”
— Steve Bouslog

“Don’t hesitate to reach out to IASB for help also. Attend the IASB annual meeting and take advantage of the pre-conference workshops. This is the most concentrated learning opportunity you can have. And it will re-energize you for your role as a board member! ”
— Karen Freese

“Seek a mentor in another more seasoned school board member. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your IASB Field Services Director. Keep open lines of communication with the superintendent. Respect the other board members and the board as a whole. Respect the process.”
 — Kenna Dunlap Johnson

“Ask questions. Don’t feel your question is stupid. Just because you don’t understand doesn’t make you stupid. Avail yourself of all the training chances you get through the IASB.”
— Rob Rodewald

“Learn, learn, learn. Take advantage of all the resources that the IASB has to offer.”
— Terrie Golwitzer

“Be involved, look, listen, and always learn.”
— Gary Knight

“Always remember there are other board members that have been on the board for years that are willing to help you.”
— Kimberly Grivakis