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May/June 2017

Ask the Staff: How can new school boards get off to the best start?
by Larry Dirks

Larry Dirks is field services director for IASB’s Abe Lincoln, Kaskaskia, Southwestern, and Two Rivers divisions.

Question: How can boards get off on the right foot when experiencing board member turnover?

Answer : I heard a veteran board member recently offer what I thought was a great piece of advice to a room of school board candidates. He said, “Ask a lot of questions.”

Veteran school board members can offer great perspective for newly elected school board members who may, at times, struggle to a get handle on their new role. Many veteran board members, when reflecting on “hardest” lessons learned, will make reference to notions such as understanding the role of the board versus the role of the staff, or that change comes slowly, or the realization that a board member can’t solve a parent’s problem alone, or that a board member has no authority as an individual.

One of my mentors here at IASB used to say, “Good governance is not necessarily intuitive to most people.” What he meant was that often the first reaction to a situation (as a board member), however well-intentioned, might not be best practice governance.

Good governance requires thought and discipline. It is incumbent upon veteran board members to help new board members along, and mentoring is one way to provide that help. Experience matters, and many boards are in the practice of assigning a veteran board member to each new board member to act as a mentor. The mentor can serve as a resource for the new board member in understanding the practices and protocol that is school board governance. That relationship can give confidence to the new member, especially if the board feels “under the microscope” as many do in the current environment.

On the flipside, the questions a new board member asks may give pause for the entire board to reflect on its practices. Some boards get mired in bad habits, and past practice is not always best practice.

In addition to mentoring, a proper orientation process for new board members is vital in helping the new board members become effective team members. IASB’s publication “Orientation: Building the Board Team” identifies three distinct tasks in school board orientation. First is a “nuts and bolts” orientation to specific district information and general information about public education. This may include updated information about district finances, current contracts, instructional programs, or personnel. A second task is orientation to the district’s identity and board processes, in other words, “who we are and how we do things.” This should include a discussion of district goals and priorities that guide and inform the board’s decisions and the process with which those decisions are made. The third task is to orient new board members regarding professional development, where and how they can learn more about good governance, including professional development workshops and further reading.

School board members are elected governing officials. They form a governing body. There is an old saying regarding elected officials that “you campaign as an individual, but you serve as a team.” It may take some newly elected board members by surprise that when they arrive onto a school board they are part of a team.

Any team that experiences turnover will go through four stages of development. Bruce Tuckman, an author and researcher of group dynamics, labeled these stages “forming, storming, norming, and performing.” Forming is fairly superficial but necessary as the team members get to know each other. Storming sees members positioning for influence and alliances forming that may or may not be productive. Norming is eventually agreeing to the rules of engagement and how the group will do its business. Finally, the performing stage sees an effective team conducting its business in an efficient manner. Some have added a fifth stage to this group development process called “adjourning,” where the team considers its legacy as a team.

The need for effective school district governance does not take a break while the board goes through the stages of development. Getting the new team started right is essential. Boards may want to consider getting some outside assistance regarding team building. Recognizing that, IASB’s field services department is often called upon to help by conducting a “Starting Right: Board-Building for the New Governance Team” self-evaluation to help the board move toward the performing stage as quickly as possible.

Board member professional development is essential to school board governance effectiveness. And governance effectiveness is crucial to the continued existence of locally elected school boards. If the school district that the board governs aspires to produce life-long learners, then the school board members, both newly elected and veteran, should model life-long learning, and ask a lot of questions.


“Orientation: Building the Board Team” is available at

To learn more about the in-district workshop “Starting Right: Board-Building for the New Governance Team,” visit

IASB offers New Board Member Workshops designed to meet the needs of school board members elected in 2017. Visit learn more.

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