What to Expect 2021

Compiled by Theresa Kelly Gegen


Every other spring, approximately 1,200 new school board members join their boards of education and begin their service with their first meetings. As in previous years, for 2021 the Journal asked some experts — veteran school board members with insights to share their thoughts on what new members can expect in the first 100 days. With 2021 being an extraordinary year of recovery and change, board members of all experience levels are facing some different challenges in 2021.

We thank the following individuals for their time in offering their words of wisdom to new board members. Tom Neeley is president of the IASB Board of Directors and a 32-year board member at Morton CUSD 709. Joanne Osmond is the immediate past president of the IASB Board of Directors. She has served the Lake Villa CCSD 41 board of education for 30 years.

Mark Christ is a 14-year member of the O’Fallon THSD 203 school board who represents the Southwestern Division on the IASB Board of Directors. Tim Custis is a 25-year member of the Washington SD 52 school board and represents the Central Illinois Valley Division on the IASB Board of Directors. Rebecca Drury is a 30-year member of the board of education for O’Fallon CCSD 90. Linda Eades is IASB treasurer and represents the Kaskaskia Division on the IASB Board of Directors. She is in her 24th year on the school board for Northwestern CUSD 2.

Sheila Nelson is a nine-year member of the board of education for Cairo USD 1 and represents the Shawnee Division on the IASB Board of Directors. Dave Rockwell represents the Blackhawk Division on the IASB Board of Directors and is a 16-year member of the board of education for Rock Island/Milan SD 41. Marc Tepper has been a school board member for Kildeer-Countryside CCSD 96 for 20 years and represents the Lake Division on the IASB Board of Directors.

In a sign of the times, and with hope for the future, we asked: In what ways did the COVID-19 pandemic impact you as a school board member, or change your mind about anything relating to your school board service?

Mark Christ: The pandemic made clear the importance of in-person education for students.

Joanne Osmond: I have learned that board members can participate remotely and still be effective in the governance of the district. It is still important to come to the meeting prepared and ready to actively participate.

Rebecca Drury: It has been a hard year between educating students and keeping all parties safe while satisfying parents’ needs.

Marc Tepper: The pandemic saw us making life-or-death decisions. Normally we deal with financial, curriculum, and facilities issues, but with COVID-19 it became about the health and safety of our children, staff, and administrators. Decisions were and are being made in the best interests of health and safety. A small percentage of our parent population has decided that threats, bullying, and unreasonable behavior are acceptable to achieve their objectives. It has been difficult to watch parent vs. parent, parent vs. administrators, and parent vs. board of education being played out during this pandemic.

Tim Custis: Boards experienced the loss of local control initially when the Governor shut us all down; this was disheartening. The different perspectives and concerns in reopening were also difficult for our board.

Dave Rockwell: Our district has been virtual or hybrid since last year, so personal interaction with other board members and administrators has been minimal. I miss the physical, personal contact. Obviously, this impacted me less than teachers and students. Hope is real right now that life will be better for everyone soon.

Tom Neeley: COVID-19 reinforced the importance of keeping students our main focus. How to best keep teachers and students safe and return them to in-person learning became our top priority.

Sheila Nelson: The COVID-19 pandemic gave me a greater feeling of commitment and servitude as a school board member. I wanted to make sure that the staff, students, and families remained educated about the virus. I felt it was necessary to communicate with parents when their child(ren) should stay home and when they could return to school, while actively encouraging employees and students who are sick or who have recently had close contact with a person with COVID-19 to stay at home. The decision was very difficult when deciding if school should move to remote, full-time, or hybrid. No choice left everyone satisfied. However, hard decisions had to be made resulting in what was thought to be best for the safety of the school district.

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

Dave Rockwell: Board members can influence policy but should not be expecting to directly change anything very quickly.

Marc Tepper: I wish I had known the amount of reading and research that is required on a weekly basis to keep abreast of what is happening in the district and the field of education.

Rebecca Drury: To be a good board member it takes more involvement than one board meeting a month.

Tom Neeley: I wish I had known more about school board governance and more about all of the school mandates.

Joanne Osmond: I was prepared for negative public concern when I joined the board because I came from an under-represented area of the district and had to fight to gain my seat on the board. But, I didn’t realize that the negative voices would continue after I was fairly elected. I learned then that such voices shouting are a minority and I could not let them affect my feeling of self-worth.

Linda Eades: I wish I had known more about the finance system of schools.

Tim Custis: Staff and teachers really do appreciate board members, when you show that you appreciate their concerns.

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

Joanne Osmond: What is school governance? Governance and school financing are different than anything that a new board member has experienced. Sitting on other boards, including PTO, does not prepare a new board member for school board service. Learning during the first 100 days is enlightening and not complete. They will continue to learn long after the first 100 days.

Sheila Nelson: In the first hundred days, new board members, you can expect to be involved in several trainings and workshops to broaden skills on being an effective school board member.

Tim Custis: Expect to be loaded with policies, laws, and regulations. There are many things that you didn’t realize you even had to consider.

Mark Christ: New board members can expect to be a bit overwhelmed, with the mandatory training, meetings, and any committee work.

Marc Tepper: New board members will get crash courses in policy, procedures, finance, and curriculum.

Linda Eades: New board members will learn in the first days to be aware that the reality is not necessarily how they perceived education.

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

Tom Neeley: Staying focused on the best interest of our students.

Marc Tepper: It is a challenge for new members to be ready for the items which come up in sequential order, not at every meeting, but at different times of the year.

Dave Rockwell: This year will be different as a new board member in our district will be in place when we can get our district back to normalcy. This will be something to enjoy and celebrate.

Mark Christ: New members will be challenged on learning school operations and governance and also how they “fit” in on the board.

Rebecca Drury: The member must learn the balance between being a board member and a stakeholder. Also to remember you are one of seven.

Tim Custis: Understanding all of the laws and regulations that tie a board’s hands for a lot of decisions.

Linda Eades: Hopefully the remaining board members are patient and willing to explain the “why.”

Sheila Nelson: Challenges include realizing that there are policies and procedures to follow and putting away personal agendas.

Joanne Osmond: The biggest challenges are staying off the dance floor and effectively govern the district through policy; and what to say and cover in closed session and what should be said and covered in open session. Both are tricky and take time to become automatic.

What other information would you share with a new member to school board service?
Marc Tepper: Training from IASB is well worthwhile. This is our Association and it has plenty of resources for both new and tenured board members.

Mark Christ: Take the IASB training as soon as possible; talk to other board members; keep any expectations moderate; don’t push any pre-election agenda.

Rebecca Drury: As a new member, take the time to learn everything. Listen, ask questions.

Tom Neeley: Attending and participating in IASB events allows you to learn about school board member issues and ways to deal with them. Additionally, you will meet and learn from other school board members.

Linda Eades: Do not hesitate to seek a mentor. Listen.

Sheila Nelson: Always do your homework, gather the facts, and follow policy.

Tim Custis: IASB provides educational opportunities for board members to improve board governance. Field Services Directors are a great resource. Attending IASB Division Meetings gives you a great opportunity to network with board members for other districts. I have developed a good number of relationships with other board members over the years. You often find out that school districts are much more similar than they are different.

Dave Rockwell: Ask questions. There is a lot to learn and do not expect to know all the answers.

Theresa Kelly Gegen is Editor of the Illinois School Board Journal.