Welcome to the Board

By Theresa Kelly Gegen

If you’re new to the board of education, welcome — it’s a heck of a time to start, but here you are. Are you ready?

Last fall, the EdWeek Research Center surveyed board members on preparedness. Of over 1,500 school board members only 20% of respondents said they had been “very prepared” to serve on the school board during their first six months in the position. Many more — 30% — indicated feeling “somewhat unprepared” or “very unprepared” for school board service. The good news is, by anyone reading is already showing a willingness to prepare.

School board members arrive in their roles with the best of intentions, a willingness to serve, and a lot to learn. There are challenges ahead, and a learning curve made curvier by the times. Today’s new school board members are considering issues of health and safety we couldn’t imagine a few years ago, and issues of educational equity that, although long-term and ongoing, are in a period of urgency. That’s all in addition to the norms of school board service which include representing the community, developing the district’s purpose and policies, employing a superintendent and delegating authority, and establishing goals and monitoring progress towards them. On top of that are your own expectations.

Who can help new board members get ready for this journey? We recommend two things: the district’s experienced board members, and us — the Illinois Association of School Boards. We recommend pacing yourself. It’s a lot. Don’t try to take it all in at once. As a new board member learns and grows in the role, there are plenty of opportunities to go the extra mile.

Packing and Unpacking Board Work
Every individual’s journey to the board of education is different. Similarly, every board of education is a little different in how it functions. School board practices vary from place to place. The degree of formality required in conducting meetings, for example, may depend on whether the board meets before a large audience, a small one, or no audience at all. The allowances for remote attendance due to the coronavirus pandemic have tossed some norms aside, but have made board protocols more important. Some characteristics, however, are evident in good school boards everywhere. A good school board
  • Knows the difference between governance (which is its job) and management (which is the administration’s job).
  • Makes every effort to operate openly by encouraging public attendance at its meetings and keeping constituents informed of the district’s progress.
  • Enacts policies after study and consultation with all persons or groups affected.
  • Attempts to reach decisions that all members can support.
  • Maintains efficient procedures to conduct business.
  • Works to provide quality education opportunities for all students of the district.
The board talks about education, studies the needs of students and the community, and bases its decisions on those needs. The superintendent carries out those decisions.

“Communication and trust, as well as roles and responsibilities, spawn the development of … expectations,” said IASB Field Services Director Perry Hill IV. “These expectations involve communication from the board to the superintendent. They also involve communication from the superintendent to the board. The board and its superintendent must engage in open, focused dialogue to reach clarity on expectations. Such clarity might address desired methods and frequency of contact, creating the meeting agenda, identifying data to monitor goals, and much more.”

Recommendations for Boards with New Members
We encourage returning board members to be welcoming and helpful to the newcomers. Pair an experienced board member with one newly elected or appointed, and have a plan in place to make the partnership work. Meet them where they are, listen to understand and not only to reply. Be aware that they don’t know as much about the board’s work as current and prior members do, but also that they have done their homework and bring new perspective.

As IASB Field Services Director Laura Martinez recently wrote, “Be the board member you wish you had as a mentor when you were new.”

An effective board of education has a plan for orienting new board members. Orientation is the official launch for new partnerships and relationships, and the new board. “Typically, orientation involves face-to-face meetings with the superintendent and board president,” says Reatha Owen, IASB Field Services Director. “New members may have some familiarity with the organization, but it’s always helpful to have a better understanding of the district’s history as well as getting familiar with the district’s mission, vision, goals (strategic plan), and policies.”

Returning board members, and the superintendent, must give the new member the information they need to start strong as a member of the team.

Recommendations for New Members
First and foremost, do the homework. There is plenty to study about the school district. There is still more to learn about the role of a board member, board service, and the obligations of an elected official. Some of these lessons are required by law, in the Open Meetings Act and the Illinois School Code:
  • Open Meetings Act training covers its applicability, procedures, and legal requirements and must be completed within 90 days of taking the oath of office.
  •  Professional Development Leadership Training (PDLT) includes education and labor law, financial oversight and accountability, and fiduciary responsibilities and must be completed within the first year of the board member’s first term.
  •  Performance Evaluation Reform Act (PERA) training is required for board members prior to voting or participating in a dismissal based upon the “optional alternative evaluative dismissal process for PERA evaluations.”
Some lessons are not required, but highly recommended. IASB offers “Basics of Governance,” a course specifically designed for Illinois school board members to help them start their service strong, to understand their roles, and gather the knowledge, skills, and abilities critical to good governance. IASB has packaged the state-mandated training with the “Basics of Governance” in its online New Board Member Training Bundle.

As initial training is underway, participate in the board’s orientation process as mentioned above. Request more help if necessary, ask questions, and follow the lead of the board president.

As former school board member and current IASB Field Services Director Lori Grant said, “It’s important to understand how much you don’t know. Even if you’ve spent months contemplating a decision to run and using that time to learn more about the district, there is still so much you won’t know.”

Every new board member should not only receive the information provided by the district and board, but should study it. Key items for new board members will include the district’s policy manual, specifically at this stage the governance and powers and duties of the board sections, the oath of office and code of conduct, and information on how and when the board packet is presented. The district budget — and an appointment to discuss it with the superintendent — is highly recommended from the outset as well. Familiarize yourself with the recent agendas and minutes of the board. If you’re not getting these documents, ask for them. Consider it part of your role to ask questions about items for which you need clarification.

Recommendations for Everyone

The work of the board is done by the board as a whole, not as individuals. For newly elected or appointed school board members to function effectively, respect, courtesy, and cooperation go a long way. Experienced members should make the effort to assist newcomers in understanding the work of the board, its policies and procedures, its finances, and the pressing issues facing the district. New board members should own their inexperience, listen, and ask questions.

All board members, from newbies to 20-plus-year experienced members, can consider IASB’s six Foundational Principles of Effective Governance as a starting point, a defining effort, and a continuing commitment. The obligation to govern effectively imposes these fundamental duties on the board:

1.      The board clarifies the district purpose.
2.      The board connects with the community.
3.      The board employs a superintendent.
4.      The board delegates authority.
5.      The board monitors performance.
6.      The board takes responsibility for itself.
Those are the principles themselves; the full document detailing the application of each is recommended to ready new board members for their new roles, and worth revisiting for all. As your journey continues, the importance of the Foundational Principles will become increasingly apparent.

How IASB Helps

IASB’s mission is “to Light the Way for its members by developing their competence and confidence through a robust toolkit designed to build excellence in local school board governance, including

·         Premier training experiences;
·         Networking opportunities for mutual support;
·         Valuable benefits, pooled services, information, and expertise;
·         Advocacy on behalf of public education; and
·         A platform for a strong collective voice on common interests and concerns.”

IASB recognizes not only that there is a lot to learn, and that there are a lot of ways to learn. The acronym VARK stands for four styles of learning: Visual, Auditory, Read/Write, and Kinesthetic “sensory modalities,” and is based on seminal work on learning styles by Neil D. Fleming and Colleen Mills of New Zealand. IASB recognizes that people prefer to learn in certain ways in certain circumstances, and offers modalities — to watch, listen, read, and participate — to suit everyone on their learning journey.

No matter how you learn, there is a wealth of information coming your way. To help new board members in particular stay the course, for 2021 the IASB toolkit features the Roadmap to Success (see Figure 1 on page 13). As mentioned, IASB has the state-mandated training and the important “Basics of Governance” courses packaged for 2021. These are listed on the Roadmap to Success labeled “Chart Your Course.”

Those who favor visual and auditory learning can partake in an array of webinars, courses, and livestreams. Those who prefer to read have this, the Illinois School Board Journal, and plenty more to peruse on the resource-filled IASB website. The district may have a recommended reading list for new members, and IASB also has an online bookstore, with our top titles for new board members in a package (see page 15). Kinesthetic learners, who learn-by-doing, will probably learn best at their own board meetings, but will find IASB Division Meetings and the Joint Annual Conference appealing to their participatory modality.

In particular, the IASB workshop Starting Right sets the new board on a path to becoming a high-performing team. Starting Right is a type of board self-evaluation that begins with a review of the board’s role in effective governance and continues with a discussion of expectations for communications, board/superintendent relationships, board meetings, and more.

As new members progress along the learning curve, they will discover how IASB assists districts with policymaking services, advocacy efforts, education law updates, and important topics such as equity in education, collective bargaining, social and emotional learning, school safety and security, and community engagement.

At any point in the journey, school board members can reach out to IASB for assistance. The first point of contact will likely be with the IASB Field Services Department. Field Services Directors look forward to getting to know you and assisting you and your board.

The past year has been extraordinary. Many new school board members will have been prompted to run for a seat due to the events of 2020 and 2021. Many experienced board members will have helped steer their district through turbulent times and decided to not run again. With a vision of “excellence in local school board governance supporting quality public education” the Illinois Association of School Boards aims to help all boards of education be ready to make the best possible local decisions on pandemic response, social justice issues, social and emotional learning in the wake of 2020 and 2021, school finance in a time of economic turmoil, and whatever the next years bring.

The journey begins. We hope it is rewarding. Along with your fellow board members, IASB will serve as a companion on the journey to good governance in support of public education, your local school district, students, and community.

Theresa Kelly Gegen is Editor of the Illinois School Board Journal. Resources associated with this article, including direct links to IASB offerings, are available via the Journal resources page at bit.ly/MJ21-Jres.