ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Taking the pulse
By Theresa Kelly Gegen
Theresa Kelly Gegen is editor of The Illinois School Board Journal.
School board members in Illinois have clear priorities: educate, communicate, safeguard, and manage finances for their public schools. In April of 2018, IASB “took the pulse” of its members with its quinquennial member and superintendent surveys, and added an administrative professionals survey. Here’s a look at what we learned, and what we plan to do with it.
Demographics and trends
IASB is interested in learning the demographics of school board members to determine how to improve services and support for various subsets of school district respondents. The member survey had 539 respondents out of approximately 5,350 possible; the margin of error with a 95 percent confidence level is 4 percent.
We learned that board members — or at least survey respondents — are getting older. In 1998, 71 percent of responding board members were under age 50. In 2008, it was 53 percent. Now, in 2018, only 37 percent are under age 50. It’s a slightly more diverse crowd now than in decades past, but still predominantly white non-Hispanic
(86 percent in 2018; compared to 91 percent in 2008 and 92 percent in 1998). Respondents in 2018 were 47 percent female, 52 percent male. In 2008 that stat was 43 percent female and 57 percent male; in 1998 it was nearly identical, 42 percent female and 56 percent male. Most respondents are parents: In this year’s survey 91 percent have two or more kids, 53 percent currently have kids in public schools, and 26 percent have college-age children.
Each of IASB’s 21 geographic divisions was represented by multiple respondents. Respondents came from districts of all sizes: 19 percent reported fewer than 500 students; 21 percent 500-999; 29 percent 1,000-2,499; 15 percent 2,500-4,999; 8 percent 5,000-9,999 students; and 7 percent over 10,000 students. Just over half (52 percent) of the board member respondents are from unit school districts; 36 percent represent elementary districts and 12 percent high school districts. That matches fairly well with the state’s numbers: according to the Illinois State Board of Education, 46 percent of Illinois districts are unit, 43 percent elementary, and 11 percent are high school districts.
We discovered that education leaders in Illinois are educated. In 2018, 31 percent of board members have a bachelors and 39 percent a professional or advanced degree. And many are educators — 23 percent work in education (college, university, K-12, early childhood, or trade school), the highest of any of the 14 employment categories. Retired individuals accounted for 16 percent of the responses, the second-highest employment category.
We learned about economic sectors in Illinois. Agriculture and education (including the district itself) are the biggest employers in many respondents’ school districts. The comments indicated that in many districts, employment for school board members and community residents is located outside the district boundaries.
In a sad coincidence, our 2013 survey took place three months after the Sandy Hook school shootings; the 2018 survey was three months after the Parkland tragedy. So it’s unsurprising that “safety and security” was ranked the top issue among board members, superintendents, and the communities they serve.
We asked school board members and superintendents to tell us what was most important to them, and compared that to what they thought was most important to their communities.
In student affairs, board members (30 percent), superintendents (57 percent), and community priorities (30 percent) all ranked safety and security number one. The next most highly ranked areas of interest among all three subsets were student performance/assessment and curriculum.
In managerial affairs, board members said their communities cared about budgeting (ranked first or second most important by 61 percent of respondents) and accountability (ranked first or second by 60 percent). Board members opined that leadership was their own top issue. Leadership was ranked first or second by 55 percent of respondents, followed by budgeting and accountability, both at 46 percent. Superintendents also placed emphasis on leadership (67 percent) and budgeting (47 percent) in their own work.
We learned that 35 percent of school board members would like to improve community engagement work, and 52 percent believe improvement is needed in the community’s understanding of the issues the school board deals with. Approximately half of the board members that responded say their boards use community engagement for goal setting, to develop or refine district mission and vision, and to determine community concerns about the district.
Learning experiences, learning curves
With the aim of continuous improvement for IASB and its members, we asked several questions about how school board members are doing — how much time it takes, how the work proceeds, what the learning curve is like, how board members deal with conflict, how individuals think their boards are doing, and if their experience is such that they intend to continue to serve.
Oftentimes, we borrowed the exact language from the 2013 and 2008 surveys for the purposes of comparison. In a question that lends itself to comparisons with your own experiences, school board members were asked how many hours per month do they spend on board work. Of the respondents, 25 percent spend five hours or less; 34 percent spend six to 10 hours; 19 percent spend 11 to 15 hours, 13 percent spend 16 to 20 hours; and 9 percent spend more than 20 hours per month on board work. The same question marked a slightly different curve five years ago. In 2013, 16 percent spent five hours or less; 41 percent spent six to 10 hours; 21 percent spent 11 to 15 hours, 12 percent spent 16 to 20 hours; and 10 percent spend more than 20 hours per month on board work.
With a few exceptions, school boards members say their boards are working well together as a team, functioning appropriately, and delegating operational matters to staff. Board members saw room for improvement in working with the community to communicate an up-to-date vision and to build community support for district goals. School board members say, overwhelmingly, they are able to fully participate in school board meetings and have what they need to prepare.
Board members report being satisfied with their districts’ work on wages and working conditions, expectations and standards for administrators and teachers, and local effort to finance schools.
At meetings, most boards find their leadership teams are either “opinionated and mostly polite” or “courteous, unifying, and respectful.” We heard from board members that most key governance functions are performed annually and/or as required; however, in the comments we discovered some respondents thought their boards needed to spend more time on “all of the above,” which included review of board meeting procedures and rules, review of the role of the board versus the role of the superintendent, review of district vision, mission, and goals, and review of board decision-making processes.
We included an open-ended question regarding what board members would like their boards to spend more time on. Board self-evaluation was mentioned, “and not just when things are tense.” Also included were community engagement, “not micromanaging,” assessing committees, policy-making and policy review, and monitoring district performance.
When it comes to conflict, most board members think conflict can be productive, occasionally or more often than not. Most consider themselves “compromisers” always (14 percent) or more often than not (57 percent), but they also stick to their guns when called for, always (7 percent) or more often than not (49 percent). Indeed, 64 percent say they are never withdrawn in times of conflict. The slate of conflict-related questions will be used to inform upcoming projects on conflict management.
Asked if they would run for re-election, 43 percent of school board members answered yes. The rest were unsure (42 percent) or not running (15 percent). The most common deciding factors for not running again were “time for someone else to lead,” “time away from family,” and/or that their children were no longer of school age.
In taking the pulse, the survey asked about disappointments, expectations, rewards, and surprises. Board members responded, overwhelmingly, that “inadequate financial resources” was the most disappointing aspect of board service (65 percent ranked it first or second). Mandates were next, at 42 percent.
When asked about “biggest surprises as a new board member,” many respondents said they knew what they were getting in to, but more chose the reality of school finances (35 percent) and the amount of time and preparation required (16 percent). The comments suggested surprises such as incivility, lack of knowledge of other board members, the limited power of the board, the impact of mandates on local control, and the time spent on personnel issues. Some were more pleasantly surprised, saying “how much you can change when you give a little of your time and support” and “the reasonableness … of my fellow board members.”
Also on the plus side, school board members had a clear top motivation for their board service: 50 percent picked “value public education” as their top issue, and 20 percent listed it second. They find “student and academic improvement” the most rewarding aspect of board service, chosen by 28 percent of respondents, followed by “being part of school and student activities” and “making tough choices that ultimately improve our schools.”
We asked board members to rank qualities they look for in their superintendent. Of the seven options, leadership skills ranked as the most desired, selected by 36 percent of respondents, with honesty and fairness close behind at 32 percent. Communication skills, although not ranked first by as many respondents, ranked second or third 52 percent of the time. Those themes persisted when we asked the keys to a successful board/superintendent relationship. Board members, overwhelmingly selected “honest, open dialogue and accessibility” as the key, with 65 percent ranking it the top aspect and 24 percent ranking it second.
We also asked superintendents the keys to a successful board/superintendent relationship, and got essentially the same answer. “Honest, open dialogue and accessibility” ranked first among superintendents 68 percent of the time and second 20 percent of the time. Other than that, only the factor of “no surprises” garnered significant rank, selected first by 19 percent of the superintendents and second by 36 percent.
We learned from administrative professionals what the work on behalf of their boards entails, and received input on improving interactions between the school district and IASB.
What we learned from the comments
We know from living in Illinois and talking with school board members that our state is unusual in its perspectives. School districts across Illinois are vastly different, and school board members bring thousands of perspectives to their boards of education. These surveys aim to aggregate those opinions to meet the needs and objectives of as many school boards as we can, and to drill down by category when a more specific approach is needed. But, aside from the data, we learn a lot from the comments and appreciate the time it takes to share more than a data point.
And yes, service on the board of education is not all perfect. From the member survey comments about board work, we read things like “messed up,” and “disrespect,” and “bulldozed.” We know from the comments that sometimes one person can create challenges for an otherwise high-functioning board. We read that some boards are becoming “politicized” and school board members feel this politicization is hurting the work of the board.
So we know there’s work to do. And we know that meeting boards where they are means meeting them in different places.
We also know that boards are doing good work, and board members for the most part agree. Board members are prioritizing academic achievement and community engagement, while keeping a strong eye on their district’s financial resources. More than half of the respondents said they are achieving their goals, or making progress towards them. They seek to improve transparency, stay on the course of improvement, and create a culture of excellence.
Throughout its member engagement efforts, IASB promises two things: to let our members know the outcomes and to use this information to improve the work we do to fulfill the Association’s vision: Excellence in local school governance in support of quality public education.
Our Government Relations and Advocacy staff works towards fair and equitable funding for public education in Illinois, and will continue to do so as the state moves forward with ESSA and the still-new formula based on the Evidence-Based Funding model. By expressing interest, particularly in financial and budgeting issues, in the survey, board members can be assured their input will be used moving forward.
IASB Policy Services department will use your input to better serve the needs of school boards who use IASB’s offerings, including generating new ideas for policy services and improving existing services specific to policy implementation within districts by type (elementary, unit, high school) .
The Office of General Counsel’s legal services team will use your input to provide school boards with professional and credible policy issue guidance, advocacy, and education about best practices. Your input will also help our facilitation of the work of the Illinois Council of School Attorneys (ICSA), which spearheads a collective Illinois school law voice and provides leadership and guidance on issues to the public education community.
Field Services and Board Development are already using the survey data, comparing past results to current, examining your responses to create new programming and improve existing offerings. Many questions were directly to the point of gauging member interest in certain topics, including conflict management, community engagement, new board members, and board/superintendent relations. Your input will allow IASB to further target its work, for example, by extracting data by district type, size, general location, student demographics, or community type. IASB will look at what members like — and don’t — about existing programming.
The Administrative Services and Meeting Management teams have an interest in members’ opinions in order to ensure the Joint Annual Conference and other IASB events continue to inform, inspire, and improve members’ development needs. Also, the input from all three surveys will help the registration process and exchange of resources between IASB and its constituencies work more efficiently. We will also share the data with the Executive Searches department, as they shape their own surveys to meet the needs of client districts.
The Communications department seeks topics of interest or concern, gaps in knowledge that we can fill for board members, superintendents, and administrative professionals, and best practices in delivering all of the above in the appropriate time, place, and manner. And, to the extent that a few survey takers said they didn’t even know some of these offerings were available, we’re all, collectively, improving our knowledge of each other.
Pondering the future
At the end of the survey, as we have done in surveys past, IASB asked how optimistic respondents were about the future of education in their district and in the state.
Superintendents are optimistic about the future in their own districts (92 percent very or somewhat optimistic) but less so for Illinois (only 44 percent very or somewhat optimistic). We asked administrative professionals, too, and their responses were similar: 89 percent optimistic about their district compared to 46 percent about the state.
Looking forward and back, board members are more optimistic about the future of education in 2018 than they were in 2013. Concerning the future of their own districts, 43 percent of 2018 board members were very optimistic, and 41 percent were somewhat optimistic, compared to 31 percent “very” and 49 percent “somewhat” in 2013.
It also holds true that board members are more optimistic about their own districts than they are about Illinois in general — and again there is more optimism now than in 2013. For Illinois, “very” or “somewhat” optimistic combine for 41 percent of respondents in 2018, compared to 24 percent in 2013. Going back 10 years, 86 percent were very or somewhat optimistic in their district, and 56 percent for the state as a whole.
The 2018 surveys reflect that the pulse starts with the heart. In addition to optimism, school leaders demonstrate realism, enthusiasm, active participation, and commitment to the work they were chosen to do for their school districts and the communities they serve.
Resources for the series of IASB member, superintendent, and new administrative professionals survey can be found at blog.iasb.com/p/journal-resources.html.
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