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ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL


July/August 2017

What to expect the first year
Compiled by Theresa Kelly Gegen

Theresa Kelly Gegen is editor of The Illinois School Board Journal.

As approximately 1,200 new school board members settled into their seats for their first meetings, The Journal asked some experts — veteran school board members with insights to share — to light the way for them, and tell what new members can expect in the first hundred days and the first full year.

Q: What do you wish you had known before you joined your board of education?

“You don’t have the power you think you do,” says Sue Ickes with a smile, and many respondents agreed. Learning the role of a school board member presents a learning curve for almost everyone. Many refer to the distinction between board and staff responsibilities based on the work of Richard Broholm and Douglas Johnson in A Balcony Perspective: Clarifying the Trustee Role:

Sharon Archie- Davenport: “I thought what we call the ‘dance floor’ now, was the power of the board, but it is not. I thought the board of education had this authority over everything. However, I learned that is not what the role is. The board’s job it to set policy, and to hire the superintendent. The role is way, totally different from what I expected. It is governance work — observing as opposed to procedural hands-on. That is where the balcony comes in. You observe what is happening, and then consider it based on your policies.”

Lori Price: “It’s important to understand how much you don’t know.   Even if you’ve spent months contemplating your decision to run and using that time to learn more about the district, there is still so much you won’t know.”

Cynthia Rasmussen Grabavoy: “So many of us come in, and we don’t understand the role, and how to efficiently and responsibly function as a school board member. It’s not your opinion, or even necessarily what you think would be best. It’s what’s best collectively to adhere to district policies, how it relates to the strategic plan and to the vision and goals of the district. That complete perspective is something people don’t understand.   I didn’t fully understand it, either. We have to remind ourselves of it, as school board members. When an issue comes up that we’re passionate about at a personal level, we have to remember, it’s not about me.”

Sometimes, the misunderstanding of the role comes externally, but nonetheless presents a challenge to new school board members:

Kellie O’Leary Call: “I was surprised by the number of times I was asked, ‘What’s your agenda?’ or ‘What are you looking to change?’ with regards to my reason to be on the school board.   I didn’t have an agenda or anything to ‘change’ due to resentment.   I learned quickly that, unfortunately, there are some who are board members because they were angered by a policy decision that affected them personally and decided to run for the seat out of bitterness.”

Erica Nelson: “I wish I had known more about how critical it is to learn the focus our work — take the professional development offered and insights from veteran board members. This work is focused on the always changing world of education. We have to educate ourselves on the growth and changes in how children learn and what will help them be ready for the next steps they take. ... We respect the taxpayers and the community contributions to the schools and need to educate community members who have not been into our schools to see the differences and varied opportunities that our students have and must have to learn.”

Other respondents wish they had known more of the specifics of the job:

Greg Bachelor: “Had I known how complicated the budget and spending processes were I would have attended more meetings and public hearings before running for election.”

Marc Tepper: “I wish I had understood the amount of reading required on a weekly basis to keep abreast of district events, board packets, financial statements, local news, national news, and school board news.”

Some talk about building and maintaining relationships, both within and outside the leadership team:

Amy Reynolds: “I wish I had known how difficult it is to be as open as I wish to be with my constituents, while also maintaining a trustworthy relationship with fellow board members.”

David Price: “I wish I had known the diversity of personalities I would be working with.”

James McCabe: “I wish I had understood more about the patience level that you need, because change happens but slowly.”

Carla Joiner-Herrod: “I really didn’t understand that politics sometimes impacts change. However, being on a board is something that you have to experience and ‘learn by doing.’ Experience is the very best teacher.”

Q: What can new board members expect in their first hundred days?

Bill Marvin gives a succinct answer to what can be expected in the first hundred days of school board service. “Confusion,” he says. Another word that pops up in many answers is “overwhelmed,” with these examples:

Call: “Newly elected board members should anticipate being a little overwhelmed in their first hundred days, and that’s OK!   Board work is a continuous learning process that becomes more familiar the longer you’re seated.   You’ll do fine if you are committed to being fully engaged which begins by absorbing information, asking questions and utilizing all available resources.”

Tepper: “Board members will understand the feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information. The addition of mandatory training within 90 days does not help. It would be better to have an extended period of time for training since much of what is taught is not retained due to ‘information overload.’

Sue Ickes: “They can expect to feel overwhelmed, especially if unaccustomed to Roberts Rules of Order.”

Archie-Davenport: “I just told our new ones, ‘it is going to be overwhelming, and it is a lot of information.’ The best thing to do is to take it piece by piece. Ask questions. Don’t just take the mandatory training, take all the training you can. The first hundred days needs to be an education period, when you take the challenge to truly invest in being a well-rounded board member.”

Respondents consider the details of their work in the first hundred days:

Gianina Baker: “Listening. And lots of it.”

Bachelor: “The first hundred days are full of mandatory training, meetings and information gathering so you may immediately start contributing to the actions of the board.”

Grabavoy: “It would be wonderful if there could be a mentor for every new school board member, to assist them through the process in their own district. Some of us go about reaching out to new members naturally, but that doesn’t always happen on every board.”

Lori Price: “Expect a lot of reading. Policies, information about your district that was not previously known, budgets, prior meeting minutes to get caught up, etc.   Expect to learn a lot more than you ever thought you’d need to know.”

Reynolds: “The first hundred days present a huge learning curve, not just in the obvious like budgets, mandates, legalese, etc., but also in how best to interact with fellow board members.”

Nelson: “You’ll need to be reading and getting organized in order to manage the amount of paper and reports. If you do not create a system for the materials, you won’t be able to follow your board’s work cycle as easily. Take your required training and be serious about separating your role as a board member with your other roles — you are now elected and the expectations are different for you. You always represent your board role and your board.”

Joiner-Herrod: “In the first hundred days, learn the basics of governance.   Become familiar with your expectations such as meeting dates, retreat, training opportunities, and IASB and NSBA meetings and conferences.”

McCabe: “Expect to learn a lot of new terms and processes and learning a tremendous amount about how the district works in the background.”

David Price offers a slightly different take on the first hundred days, saying, “It’s when you get used to community members trying to get your attention.”

Q: What are the biggest challenges a board member faces in the first full year?

Three respondents are in straightforward agreement on what the biggest challenge of the first full year is:

McCabe: “Understanding the budget process and the tax levy process.”

Bill Marvin: “Understanding fiscal issues.”

Ickes: “Learning financial and legal basics.”

Others consider the role, and the working relationships it involves, as the biggest challenge of the first year. Cynthia Rasmussen Grabavoy is involved in advocacy for the elderly, and she brings some of the tenets of that work into the challenges faced by school board members.

“In work with hospice patients and trying to support them, there is a saying, ‘we need to have a broad back of equanimity and a soft front of compassion,’” Rasmussen said. “As a school board member, your broad back is your policies and plans. And of course, you have to have compassion.”

Other respondents also offered relationship- building advice:

Call: “Upon finding out you’ve been elected to the school board; community members will look to obtain your input on current topics or other concerns they may have.   Knowing what items are considered ‘board work’ and what items the community member needs to address directly with your District’s administration are essential and requires professional development to know the difference.”

Tepper: “There is challenge in understanding the role and how to separate the ‘parent’ hat from the ‘board’ hat. There are times that you may need to vote on what is best for the district as a whole, but not necessarily for your child. If you cannot make that choice, you probably should not be a board member.”

Archie-Davenport: “Get to know your fellow board members, professionally and personally. Take part in your boards’ activities, and come to understand everyone’s perspectives and personalities. You will be more cohesive if you know who you’re working with. You want to be able to brainstorm together, and to express your views freely. It’s hard if you don’t get to know the people you’re working with. And still, you want to take the opportunity, even if you are in the minority, to state your case. Your vote counts, even if it’s not the majority. You will want the minutes to reflect what you stand for, that you stand behind your words. Your word is your bond.”

Reynolds: “There is a challenge in learning the dos and don’ts as far as interacting with the public in the most open, yet professional manner.”

Joiner-Herrod: “Working with board members that may have personal agendas.”

David Price: “Knowing what to concentrate on and how your fellow personalities on the board see the issues before them.”

Lori Price: “Learning to navigate your new roles.   You are no longer just someone’s mom; you are now a board member, no matter where you go or how hard you try to keep those roles separate. You can be at the grocery store, volunteering at your child’s school, even attending your child’s musical performance. You are no longer just their parent. You are seen as the board member through the eyes of parents, teachers, administrators, etc.   You will also learn that you will not be able to please everyone, including those that voted for you. You are a trustee of the entire district, not just the schools your child is affiliated with.”

A few respondents summed the challenges up:

Bachelor: “The first year may see negotiations with a union, new budget concerns, discipline issues, angry parents and committee meetings.”

Baker: “The biggest challenge is time. As a working mom, it was difficult to find time outside my full-time job and family/home responsibilities to make it to all the events I wanted to.”

Nelson: “The first challenge is developing the routine of preparing for your board meeting. Also important is getting up to speed on the district’s budget and that process. You need to train yourself to think independently from your fellow board members taking into account their thoughts while reviewing the recommendations from the administration as the experts and share appropriate questions to clarify your understanding. Another challenge is to be prepared for disagreement with fellow board members and maintain a professional approach — even if another does not return that respect. A final challenge is staying focused on board work not managing the administration.”

Q: What other information would you share with a new member to school board service?

Finally, we asked all the respondents for their favorite bit of advice or information for new school board members. As expected, they are effusive with their sharing. Again, many choose practical advice:

David Price: “Go to the IASB new board members training as soon as possible.”

Ickes: “Read the policy manual cover-to-cover.”

McCabe: “As you hear topics of concern or questions, be sure to listen but try not to answer. Most of these are the work of the superintendent, and drop your ‘bag’ on their desk and let them handle it.”

Tepper: “Do not come to a board meeting unprepared. Make sure you have read the packet before the meeting.”

Many experienced respondents note that IASB offers multiple resources for new board members, and strongly encourage newbies to avail themselves of online resources, attend division meetings and other events, and attend the Joint Annual Conference — both to learn and to network — when possible:

Lori Price: “Go to the state convention and try to attend a national convention if you can. This is our professional development.   Go with an open mind to gain new ways of thinking and gather ideas that might work in your district, or be creative in adapting those ideas to fit your district and its needs.”

Baker: “I found the Joint Annual Conference chock full of projects and initiatives working in similar districts to ours. My biggest advice is to come in with an open mind and be willing to learn. It’s quite possible the district is already underway with implementation of effective practices and approaches to support the success of its students. It’s hard to not come in with your own ideas of how the district can be run better, however, patience is key. The district may not be in a place to support your idea or initiative; it is extremely important for board members to really listen and uncover the root needs of the district.”

Call: “It cannot be stressed enough to take advantage of the professional development offered by the IASB on-line and on-site, particularly at the Joint Annual Conference.   It is targeted to items that are specific to board work.”

Finally, our respondents offer wisdom that applies to the first year of school board service, and well beyond:

Tepper: “Do not be afraid to ask questions. Don’t feel like it is beneath the board or administration to answer any and all questions.”

Marvin: “Don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

Grabavoy: “Go in strong. But if you go in thinking you have it all figured out, you’re going to miss some great ideas. Ask questions. It’s a challenge, for some people to listen — not just hear, but listen. Help the group set priorities. We all make mistakes, but we recover and move forward.”

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