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ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL


July/August 2014

Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know

Last February, IASB began its annual round of spring division dinner meetings for 2014. By the time you read this, board members elected in 2013 will have celebrated their first anniversary of being on the board.

However, at division meetings held in Rantoul, Lawrenceville and Dongola, a number of fledgling board members confessed that they still had many things to learn in their first year on the job. Most readily agreed with a statement heard in Rantoul, “Sometimes you just don’t know what you don’t know.”

As a former IASB field services director was always fond of saying, “No one is born knowing how to be a school board member.” There is nothing innate to infuse a new board member with the knowledge, nor is the job necessarily intuitive. The lessons needed are many and the learning curve can be steep. Most board members come to the table hoping to make a difference and be productive as soon as possible. But they soon realize that many issues they will encounter occur on an annual cycle, (e.g. once they learn how the district’s levy is determined), which means that they won’t be asked to use that lesson for another year.

With current state-mandated training as well as IASB’s traditional new board member workshops, board members do have ample opportunities to learn a number of important lessons that may help to shorten their learning curve. They also have the opportunity to learn from their fellow board members, the superintendent or other district employees thorough orientation to their elected position and the district.

To assist boards with this orientation, IASB makes available “Orienting New School Board Members on the way to Becoming a High-Performing Board Team.” The publication (available on the Association’s website) outlines a number of nuts and bolts steps that should lead newer board members to become well-informed board members.

Those steps include access to budget documents, policy manuals and current contracts. While many districts do a good job of orienting someone new to the board, the next necessary step can sometimes prove confusing and problematic — that’s engaging all members of the new administrative team, board members and the superintendent in a discussion that should result in agreements about how they will function as a group. This conversation should include discussing what the board is all about … its processes, beliefs and the issues of trust that arise when a new group comes together to govern. New board teams need to answer the following questions:

“Who are we?

“What do we believe?

And “what rules do we want to establish for how we conduct ourselves and our business around the table?”

This final question ties directly into Principle Six of IASB’s Foundational Principles of Effective Governance: “The board takes responsibility for itself.”

Every time a new group comes together to govern, whether it’s because someone has been elected or appointed or whether when a new superintendent has been hired, this conversation needs to take place. This is the first, or “forming,” stage of Bruce Tuckman’s four-stage process of group dynamics and development, proposed nearly 50 years ago.

Tuckman , professor emeritus of educational psychology at the Ohio State University, calls these stages “forming, storming, norming, and performing.” During the “forming” stage, most people are on their best behavior as they get to know each other, feeling their way along to see what everyone else is like. As personalities begin to emerge disagreements may arise, because ideas and personalities begin to compete for attention. This is the group entering what Tuckman calls the “storming” stage. Unfortunately, and for whatever reason, some groups never move beyond this stage.

Being stuck in “storming” is identified by bickering among board members or formation of splinter groups. However, if the new administrative team can come to some working agreements about their processes and what they believe, the group moves into in what Tuckman named “ norming.” After such agreements are reached, the group can eventually move into their job of effective governing, or what he calls “performing,” and successfully move the district forward.

Because all of this takes place in public meetings, the community can often discern whether the board and administration is capable of working together successfully, or whether the perception is one of dysfunction and disarray. While these stages are normal, it is not healthy for the team to continue storming. Luckily, IASB also offers services to boards that find themselves continuing to storm. A board self-evaluation or an in-district “Starting Right” workshop can help the board/superintendent team learn about themselves and how they can get past current disagreements in order to work together.

New board members have so much to learn and so much to offer that getting everyone to a point where the administrative team functions effectively is always in the best interest of the district, as well as all the participants’ mental health. That does not mean board members must all agree on every issue or with everything the superintendent proposes. What it does mean is that there should be processes in place so that board members can agree to disagree respectfully. From that point, the board can govern productively and tackle new issues as they arise.

One board member who attended the division meeting in Rantoul said she did not feel comfortable voting on issues she is not familiar with or does not understand completely. For her, the advice was to ask questions, which is also good advice for any board member, new or veteran. If the subject matter is unfamiliar or confusing, ask for clarification. Becoming familiar with the board packet before the meeting is imperative. Questions arising during that review should be asked ahead of the meeting, rather than springing a surprise question that may require additional research by the superintendent or administrative staff during the meeting.

And if one board member has questions, chances are that others may as well.

Any seasoned superintendent or board president will gladly spend the time answering questions that newer board members have, or helping them to think of the questions they should be asking. That’s because most of them can remember, “Sometimes you just don’t know what you don’t know.”

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