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From the start of our education, we are taught the ABCs. These three important letters lay the foundation for every young student’s education.
Unfortunately, the reality for school board members is that the ABCs stand for Athletics, Band, and Cheerleaders. The selection and purchasing of uniforms for various activities at all levels, no-cut policies, playing time, use of facilities, and similar topics can easily consume hours in and out of the boardroom. While all these activities are important to the formation of a well-rounded student, supporting teamwork, time management, and self-discipline, I challenge board members to change the ABCs into something different.
The ABCs of school board members should represent Administration, Budgets, and Curriculum. Board members have very specific duties: maintain a qualified staff (hire and fire personnel), be certain revenues are generated and used appropriately (budget), and set policy that includes the approval of a well-defined curriculum.
Let’s begin at the beginning with the letter A: Administration. Selecting a superintendent is of the utmost importance. Not only must this person possess the skills and knowledge the position requires, but also, they must be the right fit for your district. It is vital that the superintendent, as a member of the board team, works in a supportive and collaborative environment and manner. As John Maxwell, in his book, Developing the Leader Within You, states, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” The board team does not need to agree on all issues, but an atmosphere of respect and dignity is vital. The board and superintendent set the tone for the school district. A dysfunctional school board or a board in opposition to the superintendent sends the wrong message not only to the staff, but to the entire school community.
Once the superintendent is in place, it is important that he or she is surrounded by the right personnel. Building the proper team is the next critical component of a successful school district. In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins tells us to get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats on the bus. Then you can say where the bus is going. The right superintendent with the right administrative team and the right staff, appreciated and supported, results in a quality education program.
One more thing: Every board member must resist the temptation to micromanage the administrative team. Stay true and committed to the duties of a board member and leave the day-to-day operations to those you put in place.
This brings us to the letter B: Budgets. Even the smallest of school districts today operate on budgets in the millions. Most new school board members have little or no insight into the funding mechanisms and auditing requirements to which schools must adhere. The novice board member is surprised to learn that in the typical school district, over 95% of the budget is comprised of personnel costs (salary, benefits, retirement, etc.) and contracted services (transportation, utilities, maintenance agreements, etc.). New board members learn that they only have control of less than 5% of their total budget. This discretionary amount is quickly used to purchase textbooks, technology, educational supplies, extracurricular activities, and the like. Keeping an eye on the revenue and expenditures of the district and having a clear understanding of the business side of schools is key to a district’s success.
This brings us to the third and final letter, the letter C: Curriculum. The final duty for school board members is to set policy and to approve an academic program. This encompasses the review and approval of textbooks, the approval of course curriculum, grading policies, and so much more. This does not even begin to address all the federal and state requirements related to special education, comprehensive planning, and other mandates schools must address.
While everyone has attended school, few have ever had to write a course curriculum, a scope and sequence, find an appropriate text to support the curriculum, provide for the proper technology to support the academic program, and be certain the education of all students at all levels is properly addressed and implemented.
So how do you start?
Many states have training requirements for school board members. By statute in Pennsylvania, every new board member is now required to attend five hours of training upon being elected to the school board. Those who have been reelected as school board members are required to receive three hours of training. While this training is a good first step, having read the duties and complexities as outlined above, three to five hours barely scratches the surface of the items a new board member will encounter. It is important each school district provide an on-boarding process to inform new and returning members as to how their district addresses each of the items previously mentioned. Their state school board association can be a helpful resource in providing orientation for new board members.
Most importantly, board members must come with an open mind, ready to learn and serve. Board members must be servant leaders to the students and the community. In truth, the ABCs may really need to stand for Attitude, Balance, and Compassion.
Come with an attitude of gratitude, ready to learn and grow, ready to accept new ideas and to be respectful of others. Balance time and resources for the benefit of the students and the community to provide a quality education in a fiscally responsible manner. Finally, be compassionate toward others. Everyone is fighting the good fight. As the saying goes, it takes a community to raise a child.