By Nicholas D. Caruso, Jr., Senior Staff Associate for Field Services,
Connecticut Association of Boards of Education
This article was originally published in the American School Board Journal in February, 2001, but has been updated to reflect some new “mistakes”.
Before coming to work for CABE, I served for ten on a local board of education. One of my most important roles at the Association is that of a trainer or facilitator. In the past sixeen years I have worked with 142 different boards of education and literally thousands of board members. By and large the vast majority of board members are some of the finest people one could ever get to work with. However, I have found that certain issues seem to crop up with some board members regularly, even among the best-intentioned.
I should know, I made several of these mistakes myself. I have discovered that there is a “Wrong Way” and a “Right Way” to doing almost anything on a board, and I’ve put together my list of the twelve most common errors.
1. Lack of Patience
Board members are “Movers and Shakers”. You probably were asked to run because someone saw your leadership potential. In all likelihood, this is the first opportunity to serve in elected office. You want to do it all now, and you want to know it all yesterday. This is great! Don’t lose that enthusiasm! But, if you think that you will learn it all, or do it all immediately, you will probably not succeed, and will frustrate yourself and your fellow board members. Understand that it really takes a while to learn the issues, the politics and the people. It could take a year before you are up to speed on such things as budget, or policy. Meanwhile, take advantage of training opportunities presented by the board, CABE or NSBA. Those experiences will help you a lot.
Joining a team decision-making group is new for many board members. We choose leaders to run for the board – people often used to making decisions by themselves, and we take these individuals and put them in a room with a half-dozen similar individuals and ask them to make consensus decisions. It takes time to learn to appreciate the opinions of those whom you disagree with. Try to understand what motivates others, and have patience with ideas different than your own. Finally, election to a board of education does not automatically entitle you to respect - civility, but not respect. That is something to be earned on your own - by your behavior and your ability to learn.
2. Poor Behavior
I have seen board members throw temper-tantrums, use off-color language, throw things, threaten or insult board members, the superintendent, staff or the public on a number of occasions. I remember one board totally stopped in its tracks for six months because one board member made a foul remark to his colleague, and the board wouldn’t discuss anything else until there was an apology or censure, neither of which ever took place. They finally got tired and moved on - but it cost them half a year.
It amazes me how many of those same board members would be the first to object if they saw the students in their schools acting the same way.
I have only met a couple board members who I don’t think cared about children. The other “troubled” board members were behaving poorly for a variety of reasons. In many cases, board members act out due to frustration, because they feel that they have no voice in the board’s actions. Members of the “majority” need to examine their behavior to see if they are consciously, or unconsciously, contributing to the problem. I can remember, on a very contentious issue, being told by my board chair, “we don’t need to hear from you, we already know how you feel…”. It didn’t contribute to my desire to be part of a team.
I’ve seen a list of “Things People Are Afraid Of” and public speaking was number one (#7 was death!). Members of the public who come to a board meeting to share their ideas deserve respect. Most people are very uncomfortable when they are in such a position, and it takes a lot for them to come out and approach the board with an issue. They deserve your careful attention. I remember one board member falling asleep during a public hearing. He didn’t make any points with the public that day.
Likewise, show your professional staff the courtesy they deserve when they are presenting to the board. Staff members, including the Superintendent, treat presenting to the board as an honor, and they will be very proud of the work they are showing you. Board members who criticize staff at meetings are doing a great job of alienating an important part of the team. If the board has an issue with an action of the Superintendent, talk to him or her on the side, or in Executive Session at a later date. Don’t air dirty laundry in public.
Your community will often judge the quality of your schools by the behavior of the board. Give them something to be proud of!
3. Challenging the board after a vote
Emotions run high when the board makes a difficult decision on an emotional issue. Board members tend to be committed to doing what they think is right and sometimes a majority of the board may see things differently than you, and vote accordingly. There are few things more destructive than a board member publicly chastising the board of education for making a “bad” decision. The subtleties will be lost on the general populace, which will only see a board in chaos. My advice is to fight hard for what you believe in, and then accept the will of the board, and publicly support the decisions of the board after the vote. I look at voting as a sort of contract: I sign on the dotted line, and accept the outcome of the contract. When you vote, you should be willing to accept the outcome of the vote, win or lose.
Another serious mistake board members sometimes make is when they believe they are going to lose a vote; they fold their arms, close their mouths and pout, rather than share their ideas. It is very important that those members share their concerns with their colleagues. You may not win your point, but it is very likely that some of your concerns could be addressed by amending the motion to take them into consideration. Be careful how you present your ideas. Be judged on the quality of your ideas, not your behavior.
In order for this to work, however, the other board must be very sensitive to opposing views. They probably feel as passionate about their convictions as you do about yours. If possible, allow them to “save face” before a vote. It will greatly enhance the team. Pyrrhic victories are not successes.
4. Acting like the “Lone Ranger”
There often seems to be board members who appoint themselves “overseer” of the school district. I recall one board member, an administrator in an adjoining school district, who often went on “raids” at the high school, trying to find mistakes. She would appear at board meetings, legal pad at the ready, with a report to the board of all the “problems” at the school. The staff panicked whenever she arrived at the door.
In another district, the actions of a board member while visiting a classroom warranted a warning from the superintendent that if the board member persisted in disrupting class by criticizing the teacher in front of her students, she would be arrested for trespassing.
Whether a board member improperly acts as a spokesperson for the board, or a one-person auditing firm, board members need to remember that the board of education is empowered to handle various responsibilities. They could conceivably vote to appoint a member to a specific charge, but, in general, individuals have no more authority than any other member of the public.
5. Can’t See The Forest for The Trees
Probably the greatest complaint by superintendents is that of the board micro-managing the administration. I’ve seen boards argue about the size engine needed on a snow blower, or what wattage light bulb to purchase. There is no definitive answer to what constitutes Policy versus Administration. However, there are a few things to help a board and superintendent set some ground rules: First of all, it is important to understand that not all issues are exclusively either policy or administration. Gray areas abound. It is important for the board and the superintendent to discuss and decide together where the lines need to be drawn. The more the board concentrates on VISION, the less it should be in day-to-day activities. Setting goals, monitoring their implementation through policy, communicating often with staff is appropriate.
6. Dropping a bomb at a board meeting
Occasionally a board member will try to make points in the community by embarrassing the superintendent, or board chair by dropping a “bomb” - a surprise question that cannot be quickly answered. The intent isn’t to gain information, only to embarrass someone.
A primary task of a board of education is to make decisions, based on information they acquire through reading, presentations and asking questions. Board members need to feel comfortable in making a decision, and it is important to ask any question that needs answering prior to voting. If the intention is to gain knowledge on an issue, than any question is fair game, but how you ask it is very important. If you know the issue is divisive, or is a matter of concern in the community, pick up the phone and ask the superintendent beforehand. Give the superintendent time to give a thoughtful answer, which will help you, and other board members, make a good decision. In some cases, it is important that the question you are asking be asked publicly, if you know members of the community have the same concern. You want your community to know that the matter was discussed, asked and answered, and that the board took the matter into consideration. Good board members will call the Superintendent and mention they will be asking the following question at the board meeting. Again, the purpose of raising questions is to help the board decide.
Similarly, many times, board member ask questions that were answered quite well in the preparation materials provide in the board packet. If they had read the packet ahead of time, they wouldn’t have had to waste the board’s time reviewing material already presented. Read and understand the packet - and be on time!
6b. Superintendent or chair drops bomb on board
Fair is fair: if the board shouldn’t surprise the superintendent or chair, neither should they drop an emergency decision on the board’s lap without adequate preparation. A true emergency aside, the board shouldn’t get hit with a surprise request to pass something without adequate information to make a good decision. That being said, your staff goes thorough a lot to prepare your board packet and the materials you need to study in order to make good decisions. Show appreciation for the prep work being done by reading the materials beforehand. The saddest sound a superintendent hears at the start of a board meeting is the ripping sound as board member open their packets for the first time.
7. Vote along party lines, putting politics before children
School board service is “grass-roots” democracy at its best, or worst, depending on how politics play in your community. I have worked with boards where there is no clue that the members were elected politically, and others where politics stymies the board’s ability to focus on children. I have seen boards crippled by the partisan infighting, and the district slowly falter as the lack of vision and leadership keeps everyone from doing what is necessary to improve education.
If you have a political board, I suggest you each get a blank sheet of paper, write your political affiliation on it, have someone collect them - and throw them out the meeting room door! Leave politics out of board business, it doesn’t belong there!
8. Become a “ball carrier” for others with hidden agendas
It seems that every board has someone who acts as the spokesperson for the staff, or specific community groups. While every board member wants to be helpful, under no circumstances should they try to circumvent the chain of command. Human nature being what it is, every story has two sides. There are board members who, misguidedly, bring every issue they hear in public to the board’s attention.
In cases where staff or parents approach you, remember that the board is often the last link in the chain of command. Your board should have a clear policy on when it is appropriate for the board to “hear” a case, and it is usually after other avenues are exhausted. Let the process work. In some extreme cases, your involvement at the wrong time could keep the board from rendering a legitimate decision, or open the district to potential legal liability. Ultimately, your attempt to help someone could leave your board open to more serious harm.
Likewise, when approached by someone you know; a friend, coworker, neighbor or political supporter, be very careful not to commit to voting a certain way. You should always vote your conscience, and make decision based on what you believe is best for the children in your district, but only after hearing all sides.
Memorize this statement:
“This problem could end up requiring board action, and if I am involved in it at this level, I will be unable to act on it as a member of the board because it could be a violation of due process. You really need to go through the proper channels.”
8a. Have your own hidden agenda
I have known people who have sought a seat on their local board to achieve some task - fire the superintendent, bring in all-day kindergarten, or get their brother-in-law a job as football coach. It becomes apparent to most after a short time that the job involves much more than your issue.
One way to deal with hidden, or one-agenda board members is for the board to establish goals for the district (and the board), which become the driving force for the district. When the superintendent is faced with the individual issues, he or she must be able to bring out the goals and see if they meet the vision of the board. The more the board focuses on goals, and leaves administration alone, the less disruption a “lone-wolf” can cause.
9. Speak about confidential issues
Connecticut, like other states, has restrictions on what can be discussed in “Executive Session”. It is important that the board members all understand the laws, and their intention. You are entrusted to do the work of the public, watching over their schools, and their children. Except for a few clearly defined exceptions, the public has a right to watch the board fulfill its obligations. You should be doing most of your work under public scrutiny. In the end, this builds credibility and trust.
There are times when the board is in executive session, and strays from the original topic. Every board member should be ready to interrupt at any time, when the discussion strays from “privileged” information to something that should be discussed in public.
Likewise, it is highly unethical and sometimes illegal for board members to divulge the contents of the closed session to outsiders, whether members of the press or others. Doing so could open up the district to lawsuits, or civil penalties. Sometimes it isn’t intentional, but that is not a suitable answer for violating this trust.
10. Consider staff “the enemy”
While visiting boards I have heard board members say the following statements:
a. “We would have a lot more money to spend on kids if we didn’t have so many teachers on the payroll”
b. “They’re not the public, they’re just staff (board chair referring to staff present at board meeting)
c. We have way-y-y too many administrators”
Whether a blatant or derogatory statement is made at a meeting, or if the tone of your questions at a meeting drives a staff member out of the board room in shame and disgust, you are harming the district when you attack your teaching staff. With all the talk of testing, accountability and technology in education; learning still, by-and-large, takes place when a teacher works directly with children.
Teachers who are frustrated or feel that they are not appreciated will not put the effort into their jobs and it will affect the performance of the students. They should be considered a vital part of the team (as should all staff members) and appreciated.
Likewise your administrative staff is spending so much time responding to reporting requirements, disciplining students, administering special education requirements, etc, that they do not have time to do what they really want to do – to be the educational leader in their school. Support them, and show them that you appreciate the job they are doing.
If you have a problem with an administrator, a program or teacher, bring your concern to the superintendent. Don’t take potshots at staff.
11. Ignore Policy
When I work with a board I will usually ask the members to raise their hand if they’ve read their policy manual. Many do not (some argue they’re allergic to dust). One board chair said “I don’t think we have a Policy manual”.
I’ve seen boards of education decide something only to find out it goes contrary to board policy. I have seen votes to regularly overrule existing policies. There are boards that ignore it when staff overlooks board policy.
Policy is the board’s book of law. It is the only substantive thing they leave behind – it is the board’s legacy to the community. Boards should refer to policy whenever they make a decision. Rarely is there no connection to policy in a board decision. In fact, if the board routinely deals with non-policy issues, they should start asking whether or not it is necessary for the board to make the decision, or to let administration do it. If you find yourselves overruling board policy on a regular basis, rewrite the policy. How can you expect your administrators, teachers and students to respect the district policy manual if the board does not?
These same individuals need to be held to the policy manual as well. Only the board of education can overrule a policy; no one else. This should be done only after careful consideration, and the board must be sure to specify what is unusual about the situation that is requiring the board to overrule policy. You must be very careful that you don’t set a dangerous precedent and open the door for others to demand the same exception. If you are having a problem enforcing a policy, review it.
12. Put the board above family and business
As important as serving on a Board of Education is, NEVER forget what is most important! I have seen board members lose their jobs, their families and their homes because they spent so much energy on the board. It is easy to do so. School board members become “important” to the community and are often sought out to participate in a variety of community events, all of which tend to boost the board member’s ego. Other organizations will ask for time, and “free” time diminishes. I fell into this trap myself, and spent hundreds of hours a year at board-related meetings and events. While there is something incredibly noble about serving on behalf of children, remember that there are others who serve with you, and other members of the community who will also help. You don’t have to do it all. While your obligation to the board is important, and you should carry your weight, learn to say no to non-critical requests for your time. When your time on the board is completed, you still need a life to go back to.
For more information contact Nick Caruso at firstname.lastname@example.org