From the Field: Unlocking the Team of 8

By Laura Martinez

Something I think about a lot is how unique the team of eight is: seven laypeople elected to govern a school district and one educational professional hired to manage it. A school board is responsible for a multi-million dollar budget and is also the boss of a highly educated professional. How on earth does this work? In my eight years working with board members and superintendents, I have noticed four key answers to that question.

One way this team of eight works is that board members must understand the magnitude of their responsibility. It is not merely attending board meetings monthly and handing out diplomas yearly. It is making tough decisions, sometimes not in the best interest of their own children. It is making sure there is enough money for the district to run. It is evaluating the superintendent, a key endeavor in accountability. It is taking action on personnel decisions, both hiring and terminating. It is making sure its policies are legally compliant and being informed about the pertinent laws. And, as we have seen recently, it is listening to angry, sometimes aggressive, stakeholders. When board members understand the full responsibility, they are eager to make sure they are doing a good job. 

The second way the team of eight works is when board members understand their governance role. This work is probably unlike anything they’ve encountered. Governance is not necessarily intrinsic, and in governance, things move slowly. The board doesn’t manage the district, but instead ensures the person in place to manage it is doing their job. The board empowers and gives latitude. Board members who want to be more active often leave their place in the balcony and start creeping onto the dance floor. But the best way to be more active is to direct energy towards knowing the role, living it, learning more about it, and helping fellow board members do the same. 

A third way that the team of eight works is when the board has plans in place that will help transitions go smoothly when the board turns over. Clear board policy is key, because it spans transitions and provides continuity for the district’s work toward its mission, vision, and goals. Board protocols put in writing the ways the board has agreed to work together, such as the importance of the confidentiality of closed session, and whom to contact with questions about the meeting agenda. Maintaining a positive board culture is another factor. This can look different for each board, but key components that I’ve seen are trust, respect, and communication. A robust orientation process for new board members — beyond a handshake, a binder, and the dates of Joint Annual Conference — is important as well. 

Finally, the team of eight is people, and that means relationships, which is the fourth answer. Relationships among team members are vital because people who know each other work better together. Knowing each other’s stories, quirks, communication styles, and passions will help the team connect. The superintendent should make an effort to get to know each board member as well. The boss is the board, but the board has seven individuals who all have a story.

The team of eight is a unique concept, though it exists in 800-plus school districts in Illinois. Each team member wants the best for the district, and unlocking the team of eight is how to get there effectively and successfully.

Laura Martinez is Field Services Director with the Illinois Association of School Boards for the Kishwaukee, Northwest, and Lake Divisions.