IASB Journal Cover/HatsNew Hat, New Role, New Challenge
Experienced School Board Members Offer Wisdom to Newcomers

By Theresa Kelly Gegen

Welcome to the board of education! Every other spring, approximately 1,200 Illinoisans throw their hats into the ring and take on the role of school board member. You are about to don (figuratively, of course) a new hat on behalf of your communities in support of their local schools.

We hope the new hat is a perfect fit, but don’t be surprised if it’s not, at least at first. School board work takes a little getting used to. The good news is that resources abound to help you grow into your new role — and new hat.

After each consolidated election, the Journal asks experienced school board members to share insights and thoughts on board service. Their answers follow. However, board service is not “old hat” to any of these board members. They will agree that there is always something more to learn.

IASB is grateful to these members of their local boards of education who took their valuable time to answer questions and put on their thinking caps to offer advice.
  • MyKin Bernardi has served on the board of education for Fieldcrest CUSD 6 for six years.
  • Chris Crabtree is an eight-year member of the Wheaton Warrenville CUSD 200 school board.
  • Linda Eades is in her 25th year as a member of the Northwestern CUSD 2 board and is a former IASB treasurer and Executive Committee member. She represents the Kaskaskia Division on the IASB Board of Directors.
  • Terrie Golwitzer has served on the Bradley SD 61 school board for 22 years.
  • Chris Gordon is a 12-year school board member from New Berlin CUSD 16 and is a member of the IASB Board of Directors for the Abe Lincoln Division.
  • Cynthia Jo Rasmussen Grabavoy has served on the Troy CCSD 30C school board for nearly 20 years.
  • Jeff Hewitt has served on the Triad CUSD 2 school board for 16 years.
  • Kimberly Keniley-Ashbrook is a 12-year member of the Heritage CUSD 8 Board of Education.
  • Christine Lynde has served on the board of education for Byron CUSD 226 for six years.
  • Karla Maville is a 10-year member of the Belvidere CUSD 100 school board.
  • Rebecca McCracken is an eight-year member of the school board serving Knoxville CUSD 202.
  • Mandy Rieman is a 10-year member of the Jasper County CUSD 1 Board of Education and is a member of the IASB Board of Directors for the Wabash Valley Division.
  • Brian Skibinski has served on the school board for Frankfort CCSD 157C for four years.
  • Kyra Tyler is a six-year member of the school board serving Forest Park SD 91.
  • Linda Wegner has served for six years on the school board for Dixon Unit SD 170.
  • Barbara A. Wells has served on the Kankakee SD 111 Board of Education for 18 years.
  • Gwaine Dianne Williams is an 18-year member of the Maywood-Melrose Park-Broadview SD 89 school board.
What’s with the hats?
Joining the school board doesn’t mean an individual loses any of their other hats, however. Every school board member is still a community member, parent, taxpayer, and/or stakeholder, plus educators and lifelong learners.

Tyler: It can be a challenge figuring out when to wear your board “hat” vs. any other “hat” of parent, community member, taxpayer, etc.

Maville: The training that I have received from the IASB both at internal board retreats and at the annual conference has been invaluable. It is hard to be a parent and a community member and a board member, and to remember which “hat” I should be wearing at which time. IASB has some great resources to help board members understand their role and navigate these tricky situations well.

Keniley-Ashbrook: You are a board member, always, and all interactions you have in your district and community can be amplified as a result. Learn your chain of command and level up stakeholder concerns.

Skibinski: Being a board member is truly a very fulfilling position. Knowing that you are directly working with all stakeholders to guide your school district into the future. Someone told me, “You run as an individual but you work together as a group.”

Thinking back, what do you wish you had known before you joined the board of education?
Crabtree: There are so many things! A stronger understanding of governance would have been helpful and a realization that change in education is a slow process, but when you can be part of a team that makes change happen for students, it is the best feeling.

Rieman: I wish I had known more about the governance procedures, mandates, and how different board finances are.

Maville: I wish I had a better grasp on the immense learning curve. Ten years in, and I’m still learning what this particular acronym means, or that we have “x” program available in our high schools.

Eades: Educational change is slow.

Bernardi: I wish I had attended more board meetings prior to running, I also think just knowing the basic ins and outs of a regular board meeting would have been helpful.

Hewitt: I can’t really say that knowledge of any one thing would have been particularly helpful but I am thankful I didn’t know how much work being an effective board member required or I might have reconsidered...

Wegner: You have to be patient. The wheels turn slowly, but looking back you will see your changes implemented.

Grabavoy: It would have been advantageous to have the role of a school board member reiterated to me. I just remember feeling so small sitting in that big board chair for the first time! What a good school board member looks like might have been a good knowledge base for me.

McCracken: What kind of commitment of time it takes to be a great board member! I have to have an open mind.

Lynde: I was fortunate that I regularly attended board meetings as a community member before I was elected, so I had a basic understanding of the meeting procedure. What I didn’t know was that most challenging decisions often have to do with confidential information and I wouldn’t be able to lean on my spouse and family for emotional support. New board members shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to other board members to help them process or vent or ask questions. There are definitely more emotional decisions than anyone realizes.

Keniley-Ashbrook: The importance of working with the board using one voice, and working through conflict with trust and understanding to find consensus.

Williams: There are resources and supports in place to help new board members adjust and grow in their governance role. No one expects you to know everything. On the contrary, most new board members will be on a learning curve.

Tyler: Enjoy the ups and prepare for the downs. This kind of work is a little bit of a roller coaster ride mixed with whack-a-mole.

Wells: I wish I had known how hard and time-consuming this work would be. The fact that people don’t understand the role of a board member and the work of the superintendent interferes with the ability of school districts to accomplish their mission. If you think your job is to “get rid” of a certain employee, or to end a certain program regardless of the effect it will have on students, I say emphatically that is not the job of a board member. Unfortunately, I have watched board members actively undermine the decisions that they voted for in public meetings using their time to build up attacks against the superintendent. The job of a board member as I see it is to bring the concerns of the community to the administration. When a solution is crafted after discussion and debate with your fellow board members and the administration. Your duty as a board member is to help the community understand the why of the decision.

Golwitzer: I wish I had learned earlier that most people that come to you with a problem just want to be heard. To feel like someone has paid attention to their issue and understands their point of view even if there is absolutely nothing I could do about it.

What challenges can new board members expect in their first year of board service?
Gordon: The first year of board service is like drinking from a firehose. You are learning on the go and have a great deal of decisions to make. It will go by very fast. Do your best and ask questions of your veteran board members and superintendent.

Williams: There is a challenge to become familiar with other members of the team and understand their role. Keep in mind that you are one of eight on the governance team and do not attempt to act or make decisions for the board on your own.

Hewitt: I see two big challenges. One is learning your proper role so you don’t get caught trying to be too helpful by doing non-board duties (i.e., tasks that belong to the superintendent or staff). And the second is learning the financial nuances of school districts.

Wells: Learn how to listen without thinking of your response. If you can do that especially when things are contentious, perhaps issues can be resolved better and everyone will feel heard. Make it your personal mantra not to interrupt while someone is speaking no matter how wrong you feel they are. Once you have listened fully and understood, then give your input. Also, understand the purpose and practice of the Open Meetings Act. Keep in mind the training pieces you receive ... and remind your team of it if needed. Don’t be afraid to walk out of the room if they are breaking that law. Don’t be afraid to inform the proper authorities.

Golwitzer: You will need to develop the skills necessary to direct criticisms, problems, and complaints to the proper people, and to what the chain of command is. The school board is the last resort, not the first.

Skibinski: It will be a challenge catching up on the amount of information that you will now have access to — finances, capital projects, student discipline, curriculum, and comprehending the board packets — current and past.

Bernardi: I think one of the biggest challenges was to feel comfortable and confident on the board. Another is that those who elected you sometimes feel they can always come to you with problems or complaints. Trying to get community members and staff to follow the chain of command and hierarchy can be a struggle.

Wegner: There is so much to learn. You may feel overwhelmed. Ask questions, attend trainings, and use your orientation. Learn layer by layer. Don’t think you have to know everything all at once. After a year or so, you begin to understand the language, the process, the protocol, your role, and more.

Lynde: Policy and finance are challenging and to some degree remain a challenge after many years of service. Learning complicated and legal-based concepts requires us to be comfortable asking questions, over and over as often as needed. Change is a process and it’s slow. We serve on boards that represent the huge institution of public education and there is a series of checks and balances put in place that cannot be skipped. Learning all the steps involved in the processes is almost as challenging as understanding policy and school finance.

Crabtree: The biggest challenge is what we put on ourselves. Recognize it will take you a year just to dig into the facets of board governance and gain a better understanding of your district from this role. If you try and take on too much, you will get frustrated. The next big challenge is navigating all the comments you will receive from people you know, or may recognize you while in the community, and bend your ear. Your first inclination will be you want to “fix” everything but understand the majority of the time their concerns fall into operations, so you can best help by encouraging them to go to the appropriate teacher/administrator/district staff for help.

McCracken: The biggest challenge is being present, to understand they are there to represent all stakeholders, not just those with children in the school district.

Eades: The overwhelmingness of becoming up to speed with fellow board members

Grabavoy: One of the biggest challenges is meeting your fellow board members for the first time. I’ve learned that we are better and do better when we effectively work together. Establishing good working relationships with your fellow colleagues can be a great challenge. However, it will be the best gift for your district.

Maville: There are two main challenges facing new board members. The first is, you don’t even know what you don’t know. Schools are complex entities that have layers of complicated laws, regulations, finances, and policies that govern their operation. At the beginning, you will rely heavily on staff and more experienced board members to distill issues down into manageable “bites” for you, so that you can make good decisions without becoming completely overwhelmed. The second challenge is in understanding your role as a board member. School board members have the ability to wield incredible amounts of power — sometimes even when they are not trying! An off-hand remark to a teacher by a board member can cause ripples up and down the chain of authority and result in unintended consequences. It is often hard for board members to toe the line between overseeing the district and wanting to control operations. Just because you as a board member have the power to do something doesn’t mean that it is appropriate for you to do so. Hire good staff, trust them to do their jobs, and give them the resources to do their jobs well. That is the role of a successful board member.

Rieman: There are several possible challenges in the first year. One would be just learning how a school board actually operates, which is not how you might have thought it does before winning an election. Another is getting to know your fellow board members so that you can work efficiently and cohesively together. Opinions vary, and regardless of any opposition or supporting conversations with board decisions, you have to be able to ultimately respect the decision of the board as a whole, even if that decision wasn’t in your favor.

What knowledge that you have obtained has been most helpful to you in clarifying and fulfilling your role as a school board member?
Skibinski: Being cool under pressure. Truly listening to the community’s concerns and voting on agenda items does not compromise your integrity. Understanding others’ points of view and working towards compromise.

Crabtree: Seven people speak with one voice. Once a decision (vote) has been made, it is important that you all get behind the decision.

Gordon: Doing the right thing is not always the popular thing. You will have more information that you will not be able to share, but you have to look in your heart and make the right decision for the kids of the district you represent.

Lynde: IASB has a wealth of information to share and it is presented in such a way that it is easily understood and available to member districts on its website. Actively working to incorporate the Principles of Effective Governance really helped us focus as a board. Working together to improve our board relationships and how we function as a board has been very rewarding and helped us get through some really tough times.

Williams: How to separate the governance role from the everyday operation of the school district. Once you understand that your job will be much easier.

Hewitt: Learning more about the financial inner workings (Essentials of Illinois School Finance is a must-read) and school board governance.

Wegner: Basics of Governance and other trainings really helped.

Grabavoy: IASB has been my most helpful ally in clarifying my role as a board member. Opportunities to connect with board members from other districts, workshops, conventions, division meetings (and much more), have all been useful. I feel all these opportunities facilitated my growth in doing board work. When in doubt, seek the people with wisdom and experience to guide you.

Rieman: I think the first training I attended helped me the most. It was a two-day in-person Board Member Orientation conference that had sessions to explain things such as board governance and a board member’s role. It also contained the required board member trainings for the Open Meetings Act (OMA) and Performance Evaluation Reform Act (PERA). Participating in this at the beginning of my board member career helped me to dive into my new role with confidence.

Keniley-Ashbrook: I learned how to separate the governance role from the everyday operation of the school district. Once you understand that your job will be much easier.

Bernardi: Our Field Services Director from IASB has helped in so many ways with presenting at our board retreat and having a wealth of knowledge to share. I think the knowledge I have obtained is that while we are in elected positions, we need to look at the big picture from all aspects and angles. The role of a board member is very diverse in that, we have a responsibility, and we need to understand others’ responsibilities as well. Again, the Chain of Command is always in the back of my mind and asking the questions to myself as well as others before really engaging.

McCracken: I am one of seven people serving on the board. You can’t have an agenda, which people think they can use their agenda to get things done that they want, which might not be a benefit to all students. I love serving on the board giving back to my community district where I attended and from where our children graduated.

Eades: Realizing the reason for being a board member is that it is all about the children and what is best for their success. Take the time to listen to thoughts other than yours. It does make a difference. It will help you to see from a different lens. It is not wrong but just aids in understanding a thought different from yours.

What advice do you have for 2023’s new school board members?
Williams: Start by scheduling a meeting with the superintendent and take a tour of the district buildings/schools/administration. Get paired with a senior board member who can mentor you. Understand that communication is key, stay well-read with monthly board reports from department heads, and ask questions on what you don’t understand before your meetings. Take advantage of training and professional development offered by the Association. Attend the Joint Annual Conference.

Wells: Be open to ideas and concepts education has changed drastically since we were students. Don’t be afraid of change and innovation. Ask informed questions and above all read everything you can about the positive work in the field of education. Read all of the articles published by the IASB as well as the information that you receive from your district. Most importantly use your time in the initial training of the board to set a Superintendent/Board Agreement and pass it in open session and hold each other accountable to it. Good luck to all of the new board members, I hope that you will be able to achieve your aspirations for your school districts.

Gordon: Embrace learning. Spend the time and effort to become the best board member you can be. I have served on two different school boards for almost 20 years and still continue to learn every year.

Grabavoy: Be a great listener. Everyone wants their voice to be heard and acknowledged. Use your resources, ask questions, and establish a good working relationship with your fellow board members.

Hewitt: Take advantage of as many professional development opportunities as you can and be prepared to spend significant time learning for many years.

Maville: I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that “education-speak” is a language all of its own. It’s okay for laypersons like me to ask for a translation when staff lapses into this foreign language. Never be afraid to ask questions  — it will only make you a better board member.

Keniley-Ashbrook: Reach out to your fellow board members and superintendent if you have questions. Take advantage of the tools and trainings that IASB offers because they are invaluable. Look for opportunities to connect with board members from outside your district and division to gain insight that you can bring back to your own board work. Good luck! Serving on a school board is demanding but rewarding work.

Eades: Being a school board member is an amazing adventure. Do not become overwhelmed. Seek good information sources and find a mentor. IASB has outstandingly marvelous resources and programming. Plan to attend the Joint Annual Conference in Chicago in November and do plan to attend two years in a row. Go the first year to get your bearings and go the second to really dive in. Do not hesitate to ask questions. Read, read, and read.

Rieman: My best advice is to ask every question. There is so much to learn in the beginning, to be an informed, prepared board member. Also, don’t go into your role with a closed mind, as you can definitely learn lots of information from others.

Bernardi: Learn and listen, speak your opinion but remember that you are new to the role. Work together not against and always ask questions if you are unsure.

McCracken: Have an open mind. You are one of seven. If something doesn’t get voted the way you want, you need to let it go. It was a decision made by the majority of the board.

Golwitzer: First and foremost ask lots of questions. Do not be afraid to ask questions before a meeting of the superintendent or board president. Do not be afraid to ask questions in a meeting. Chances are if you don’t understand something there are others that don’t either.

Tyler: Give yourself time to learn, ask a lot of questions, and prepare. Read the board packet, seek out professional development, and be present in the schools. And, have fun!

Wegner: Remember you are one of seven. Majority rules and then you must be all on board. You can have your “say,” but not always your “way.”

Crabtree: Ask questions. Find an experienced board member to be your mentor. Trust and respect are key components of a healthy board. You can have differing opinions, but without trust and respect, it becomes hard to accomplish the work.

Lynde: If you have the opportunity to attend the Annual Conference in Chicago, go! Not only are there opportunities to learn about new initiatives, but there are also opportunities to interact with other board members across the state and learn about what works and doesn’t work for their boards. Gaining insight from other boards is beneficial and can spark ideas for you to take home to your board. But the most important advice I have is to be kind to yourself. There may be long-standing members on your board who don’t have to think twice about routine actions and it may feel like you are slowing them down or asking too many questions. You are not! Ask questions because everyone learns from the answers. Always remember, you are here for the kids! 
Theresa Kelly Gegen is Director of Communications/Editorial Services for IASB and Editor of the Illinois School Board Journal. Thanks to those who shared their voices and hats, and also to the IASB Field Services team and Kara Kienzler for extra assistance. See page 39 for more insights from experienced board members.