September/October 2019

New School Year, New Opportunity to Review Board Policy

By Boyd Fergurson

The long, hot days of summer will soon be changing to crisp autumn days. For many, this signals the start of a new school year.

For new board members, this change may reflect new experiences in their first term as elected board members. Having been elected in April and seated as a brand new member at a meeting in the last months of the school year, new members were a part of the final productions and the closing curtain, as it were, on last year’s school performance. Summer months in the interim have provided a time for setting the stage and the completion of preparations for the upcoming debut of a new school year – perhaps there have been changes in roles or players; perhaps there have been changes in resources, scenery, or props; perhaps newly-adopted policies have necessitated a change in the written script. Whatever changes may have occurred, a new board member has resources at hand from the Illinois Association of School Boards to assist in making the next performance a stellar one.

Every other year, most school boards gain by election at least one new member and some boards may add a majority of four or more new members. Each new member has the capacity to positively contribute to decisions as the board goes about the important work of governing the district. As a collective elected body, the board has the potential to form a high-performing team effectively governing the district. The addition of new members often changes the culture of the board. How can the new board organize and come together to represent its constituency and establish effective governance procedures as it provides direction for the district? 

IASB has a variety of resources to assist boards in learning methods of working together effectively as a group. IASB field services directors can guide boards through workshops providing orientation, self-evaluation, and monitoring protocols designed for that very purpose. The first and foremost role of the school board is governance. If a job description for school board member existed, it would be just that. By learning about working together as individuals and as a group, a board is charged with effectively working together to govern the district. IASB’s Foundational Principles of Effective Governance state that as a governing body, the board is obligated with the responsibility of 1) Clarifying District Purpose, 2) Connecting with the Community, 3) Employing a Superintendent, 4) Delegating Authority, 5) Monitoring District Performance, and 6) Taking Responsibility for Itself.

The one aspect of school governance that provides continuity through a board’s cultural changes and serves as a tool for a board to use in attaining all of the Foundational Principles is policy. Having sound policies that govern a district is crucial to the board. It has been said that policy is the voice of a board 24/7. Policy provides the one voice necessary for a board to communicate its wishes to students, staff, and the community. New board members will find a review of current policy very helpful in understanding decisions a previous board may have made or what the board’s current stance is on any aspect of school governance.

The IASB Monitoring Workshop presented for school boards is designed to fulfill Foundational Principle 5, Monitoring District Performance. During the workshop, boards learn how to set up a monitoring calendar for policy review that will enable them to go through several policies at each board meeting. By engaging in this cyclical review, a board can review policies from the current board policy manual within a determined time, allowing for a more complete understanding of current stated policy and what, if any, changes should be made to express the board’s direction on any given matter. For districts that subscribe to IASB’s PRESS or PRESS Plus policy services, policies that have not been reviewed for five years are offered for review during each issue. This five-year review can serve, perhaps, as a starting point for your board’s monitoring practices, if your board has as yet to begin that process.

Although the finer points of policy cannot be covered quickly, new board members can and should learn what the voice of the board is for all of the policies in the eight sections of the board policy manual. The manual is a living, breathing extension of the board’s directives and not just a dusty document on a shelf somewhere in the district office. A good place to start, from the perspective of policies with which a new board member should be acquainted, is Section 2: School Board policies, which provides a good microcosm of information pertinent to school board members. Many of the sample policies in Section 2 define the ways in which boards govern together as a group.

Policy 2:10, School District Governance defines the board’s authority and the conditions under which it can occur. It also states the very important fact that a board member has no legal authority as an individual.

Policy 2:80, Board Member Oath and Conduct, codifies the statutory responsibilities and actions required of those elected to membership on the board. Each elected board member must promise to abide by and uphold these standards before he or she is seated. This policy’s accompanying exhibit, 2:80-E, contains the IASB’s Code of Conduct for board members and speaks to the group norms and means of professional conduct required by board membership to work effectively as a group for the benefit of the district.

Other sample policies in Section 2 cover the role and duties of board members.

Policy 2:110, Qualifications, Terms, and Duties of Board Officers, details the terms and duties of those who assume the officer positions on the board. Very important in this policy is the provision that the Board President is the head of the public body and official media spokesperson for the board.

Policy 2:120, Board Member Development, contains statutory requirements for mandatory school board member training and other topics of professional development available or recommended for board members. It also speaks to a new school board mentoring program, if the board wishes to institute one. Guidelines for that may be found in the policy’s accompanying exhibit, 2:120-E1, Guidelines for Serving as a Mentor to a New School Board Member. The second exhibit for this policy, 2:120-E2, contains a chart that may be used to post, on the district’s website, the dates of training completed by board members.
Additional topics covered in Section 2 are policies governing board meetings, maintenance and requests for board records, board policy development including the development of local policies, and a uniform grievance procedure with names and contact information for persons to whom a grievance or complaint may be made. Under the subheading of board relationships is sample  Policy 2:140, Communications To and From the Board, and its accompanying exhibit, 2:140 E, Guidance for Board Member Communications, Including E-Mail Use. This policy and exhibit contain very important information for all board members, but especially newly elected members, regarding electronic means of communicating with each other and members of the community.
While this has been but a quick overview of policies in a particular section of the board policy manual, it shows what a review of current policy can do to educate and inform new and more seasoned board members and communicate the board’s governance decisions to all stakeholders in the district. Policy review can provide a means of establishing and maintaining the one voice of the board as it raises the curtain on a new school year. ´Ç╝

Boyd Fergurson is a consultant in the Policy Services Department for the Illinois Association of School Boards.