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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

5 Reasons You Might Be a Problematic Board of Education Member

By Peter DeWitt — August 07, 2015 5 min read
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What is the point of having board members?

Is it to keep property taxes low?

To make sure that administrators and teachers do their jobs?

To offer suggestions and insight into how to prepare students for their future?

Or...all of the above?

Boards of education are very interesting when we go from school district to school district. Some boards are united. They work with school stakeholders and work hard to make their school community stronger. Ideally, boards of education and school administration should work together on a common goal developed by a stakeholder group that is representative of members of the school community.

...That common goal should focus on learning and student growth.

Unfortunately, the word “ideally” had to be added to the beginning of that paragraph. Too many people run for boards of education because of their own self-interests that revolve around resolving the issues their own children had/has in school; to use as a stepping stone for a bigger political position in their community; or to make sure their property taxes do not get raised.

Boards can be highly dysfunctional. I have seen, and heard countless stories, about boards of education who fight in public (i.e. newspapers, media, board meetings, etc.) about issues that are important...like educating children. There are others who seem to fight over having the loudest voice and being popular within a school community.

Yes, there are board members who have an educational or business background. Thank goodness for them because they can offer us valuable insight. They want all children to benefit from a high quality education. They run for the board because they want to give back to their community.

But that doesn’t happen as often as it should.

Clearly, board relations are complicated due to the way we fund schools. If so much did not fall on the backs of taxpayers, boards of education would be able to focus on supporting the learning going on in the schools in which they are charged to serve. It is important to note boards of education have their due diligence to make sure costs do not go through the roof, and that school administrators think before they spend money on new programs, supplies and other costs that come with educating children.

Being on a board...if done correctly...is not an easy job.

Working for...or against schools?

The point of this blog is to inspire dialogue. Please feel free to read it in the spirit of which I write it, and I’m sorry if it comes off negative. It’s just that lately I have experienced boards of education that are slightly disconnected from their school community, and others who seem to not understand what their role is in the school community at all.

They not only don’t support the schools within their district but talk negatively about those schools without offering much guidance on how those schools can improve. As a community, we should want more from our boards of education. We should hold them accountable to make sure they are doing their best to help schools get better.

Unfortunately, many voters in the community have no idea who is even on their board of education...until they have a problem with their child’s particular school. Once in office, the individual members and the board itself really seem to lack a person or organizational body to regulate their actions.

What are the measures to prevent them from heading down a road where decisions are made that devastate a program or school community?

How can boards hold themselves accountable and what can the organizations that support boards in each state do to support this?

So...if you are on a board of education, and have not read very many articles or blogs about the role you play in educating students, I thought it would be good to create a list of the ways to be able to self-identify whether you are being helpful to your school community, or are merely acting as a big obstacle to progress.

Using my best Jeff Foxworthy impersonation....You might be a problematic board of education member if you:

Vote against everything the rest of the board supports - If you have 6 or 7 fellow board members who are voting to support something beneficial to the children in the school district, and your first thought is to vote against it...just because...you might be a problematic board of education member.

Act as a rubber stamp - If you never read the packets, e-mails or important notes from central office administration, agree to things too quickly, and you also don’t engage during meetings...AND people have to check for your pulse to make sure you are still breathing in those meetings...you might be a problematic board of education member.

Don’t know what is happening in the schools - “Which school is that?” “What is the name of that principal again?” “Is that an elementary school?” “Where is that school located?” If these questions are common for you...you might be a problematic board of education member.

Singular Self-Interest - I actually think it’s fine if people run for the board of education because their child had an issue and, as a parent, they wanted to correct that issue for their child and other children. It becomes more problematic when that is the only reason to stay on the board. In any situation, we should learn from the experience and stretch our thinking about school. If you have a singular self-interest and you never grow because of it, you might be a problematic board of education member.

Low impression of school - There are board members who seem to care less about public education, disrespect teachers as adults who make too much money with too much time off, and see no need for administrators. If you believe this and you happen to be in a school district where teachers are being innovative, administrators are trying their best to support teachers, students and parents...and the schools are showing growth, you might be a problematic board of education member.

In the End

There are boards of education around the nation that work with their school communities. I’d like to thank them for that, even if they ran for the position and were elected to do that. They donate their time, volunteer, and they work toward the greater good of learning and student growth,. Those board of education members should be acknowledged for helping make their school community stronger. They clearly create expectations for themselves and hold each other accountable.

Recently however, I have heard more about boards of education that seem to work against the schools they were charged to represent. They talk negatively about teachers, administrators, unions and education as a whole. At the same time they are pointing fingers at what they see as the problem in their districts, they should hold up a mirror and acknowledge that they may be one the biggest obstacles.

It’s time to get passed the stepping stone, good ole- boy mentality and start working toward dialogue around a common co-constructed goal about what we want out of our schools. Anything else just makes board of education members part of the problem without offering much of a solution.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.