May/June 2023

From the Field: Building on the Foundation

By Patrick Allen

Now that the election has passed, and everyone knows what their board will look like going forward, it is time to figure out how your board can start to lay the foundation of success for your district. There are many things to be done — getting to know each other on the board, ensuring that there is a common understanding of the rules the board will use to operate, making sure that the newly seated board members have an understanding of their role, and setting common goals for the work of the board going forward. This is far from a comprehensive list but gives a glimpse into the work that will need to be done to form an effective governing team.

While it is not necessary to be best friends with all of the other board members, it is important to understand the other board members and the ideas that they will bring to the board. Having a common understanding can go a long way in beginning to build the trust necessary to form the highly effective team. It is important for new board members to learn the expertise that existing board members have picked up over the years, and important for existing board members to learn the expertise that new board members are bringing to the table.

A common understanding of the rules of operation for a board helps in forming the governance team. This is something that can be done during a board self-evaluation. Board protocols help everyone not only to understand, but also to feel invested in the operations of the board. It is a good time to review how the board does its work and see if there are ways to improve those processes. All board members will be involved in this exercise, and it helps to make it feel like a new board, instead of an old board with new members.

When board members are first seated, they likely have an idea in their head of what it means to be a board member and what the role of a board member is. After participating in a meeting or two, that idea has likely shifted. It is important for all board members to have a common definition of the role of a board member and the role of the administration. Often, this is an area that causes unnecessary tensions. Board members often have differing opinions on the role of the board and individual members. If these differences are not discussed and clarified, they can, and often do, lead to increasing tensions over the life of the board. It can also lead to frustration for the administration, as well.

Setting board goals is an excellent way to build a strong board team. There will be goals or a strategic plan in place from a prior board, but it is important that the new board review these. The new board needs to find a way to take ownership of these goals. Once the board has a set of goals or a strategic plan of its own, the growth of the board becomes a lot easier.

During the goal-setting process, many different areas get reviewed. There is individual work, there is small group work, and there is work with the entire group. It starts with the development of core values and beliefs. The next activity is to review, or develop, the mission and vision statements. Often, these have not been updated in a long time, and need to be changed to meet the current direction of the district. After the mission and vision are complete, a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) or a Plus/Delta activity is done to determine areas that might need to be addressed with the development of the board goals. These are typically done across five areas, but can be altered based on conversations prior to the workshop. These areas are district finance, facilities, student achievement and curriculum, programs and services, and community and district relations.

Once the SWOT or Plus/Delta is complete, it is time to develop board goals. The results are reviewed, and areas that need to be addressed are identified. Small groups will work to develop goals within these areas, and eventually will report out to the governance team as a whole. This ensures that everyone’s voice has been heard throughout this process and that everyone feels a part of the goals that are developed.

It is important that new board members and existing board members take intentional steps to make a transition to a new board as smooth as possible. The steps listed above are simply ideas for measures that can and should be done for a board to be as effective as possible. It is important that this new board not wait. The longer boards wait, the larger these problems can become. Addressing any issues before they become issues allows the formation of the new board to happen quicker, and allows the new board to focus on the things it should focus on.

Patrick Allen is Field Services Director for IASB’s Abe Lincoln, Kaskaskia, Southwestern, and Two Rivers divisions.