There are few things more American than the local school board. But as anyone who sits on a school board—or is answerable to one—can attest, democracy at its smallest level tends to be a lot messier than even a gooey slice of Mom’s apple pie.
School boards are in charge of choosing curricula, managing schedules, and negotiating employee labor contracts. They have also become the translators and interpreters of mounting state and federal schooling requirements. And they are first in line as the country wrestles with its changing demographics and questions about representation and political power.
Their ability to handle those challenges well depends on their governance structure—the delicate interplay between superintendents and school boards. In essence, the districts with strong, respectful, productive relationships will handle new challenges well, and those without them probably won’t.
For this story, Education Week interviewed superintendents, school board members, and researchers to illuminate some of the themes that seem to plague school board and district relations. We hope they’ll provide some ideas about how to break through the logjam or start out on good footing with the new slate of school board members elected this month.
Q: In my district, we attract school board candidates who are focused on one issue, or on establishing a foothold in politics. What can we do to get more knowledgeable board members who have broader reasons for running?
A: Start by educating your community on what the board actually does.
It’s a truism that elected officials often get their start on the school board, while other school board members run because they were angry about a recent decision or policy. While those are probably inevitable consequences of the small-D democracy inherent in our system of local governance, it also means that it can be harder to attract board members who are motivated by the service component of board service.
One common challenge: Superintendents often are well placed to recognize those individuals who would be a good fit for the board, but are afraid to actively lobby them to run for fear of opening themselves to criticism that they’re handpicking a compliant board.
There’s also the basic problem that, while superintendents are in theory experts in K-12 issues—having typically worked as teachers and then in administration—board members are usually laypeople who are not well versed in the complexities of labor law, procurement rules, or budgeting.
One way to develop a deeper bench, experts say, hinges on the district better communicating its goals and educating a broader segment of the local community about the details of board service. In a roundabout way, that can produce better talent for school boards.
That’s what Jim Lloyd, the superintendent of the 22,000-student Olmsted Falls City school district in Ohio, aimed to do when in 2019 he began to assemble what he calls a key communicators group in the district.
The group is an informal network of 40-50 individuals who, in effect, become knowledgeable about the school district and can serve as ambassadors of a kind. The idea is that, in everyday interactions in the community, they can help head off misperceptions and rumors about school business. And they can explain the district’s core beliefs—including the notion that introducing youths to athletics and arts, in addition to challenging academics, is key to preparing well-rounded students.
“I hate the word ‘transparency’ because I think it’s way overused, but everything really starts with the relationship you have with your community,” Lloyd said. “The only time you’re engaging with your community can’t be when you’re going out looking for money or campaigning.”
The key communicators group includes the mayor and some movers-and-shakers, but also parents and laypeople who are simply interested in learning more about their district. In a series of meetings last fall and this spring, the group has discussed such issues as how school funding works, why athletics and extracurriculars aren’t funded via a “pay to play” scheme, and what it means financially for the district if an operating levy succeeds or fails.
“The overall purpose was to get behind the curtain of what it is to run a school district, and how a strategic plan is created and the role it plays, and what it is you’re reporting to the community,” Lloyd said.
What began as a communications strategy is now beginning to look like a promising avenue to recruit new school board talent, especially as members begin to feel more invested in the school system’s goals and aware of the challenges it faces.
“I think the more you can engage your community, the higher probability your community will engage you and give back, as opposed to having people run on a ticket that’s focused on, ‘I’m going to get more French fries in the lunchroom,’ or ‘I want to fire that coach,’” said Corky O’Callaghan, who founded a network for Ohio districts, including Olmsted Falls, that are working to become stronger in state education advocacy.
At the beginning of October, a board member unexpectedly stepped down in Olmsted Falls. Now, several members of the key communicators group have expressed interest in the position. All would be strong candidates, Lloyd said.
Q: My superintendent is too bossy/wimpy! My board is too rubber-stampy/micromanaging! We quarrel a lot over boundaries. How can we better distinguish our roles?
A: Consider a ‘policy governance’ approach to help make these distinctions clear.
It’s not a surprise that boards and superintendents quarrel over territory: Many board members and superintendents have or have recently had children in the system, so decisions are personal to them. And elected board members often represent geographical subdivisions serving a specific group of schools. All those factors shape the tendency of boards to focus on bits and pieces of the system rather than looking at oversight of the system as whole.
In fact, in a recent Education Week survey of nearly 1,600 school board members, a number of respondents said that one of the core things they’d learned was that good governance means looking at the big picture, not at a pet issue or just one constituency.
About a decade ago, the Federal Way district in Washington state suffered from some of these complaints. Community members felt the board tended to be a rubber-stamp for its superintendents, rather than holding them accountable. Three-inch thick binders held the district’s policies; board meetings got drowned out in minutiae.
But beginning in 2010, it tried a new approach designed to bring role clarity: policy governance.
The idea was developed in the 1970s by Atlanta-based management expert John Carver and is used by school boards as well as other business and nonprofit governing bodies. In K-12, it works like this: The board sets the “ends,” or outcomes it expects, while it’s the superintendent and central office who manage the daily operations needed to get there. Board meetings are focused on progress toward those ends; board members are there to quiz the superintendent about what needs to happen if metrics are moving in the wrong direction.
One of Federal Way’s current ends, for example, is that by 2022 80 percent of 8th grade students will be meeting or exceeding grade-level standards in English/language arts, but it’s up to Superintendent Tammy Campbell to figure out the roadmap. Superintendents’ powers, in the meantime, are checked by executive limitations spelled out in the board documents. (Among other things, Federal Way specifies that the superintendent must develop the district’s discipline policies with staff and students.)
It’s notoriously difficult to link governance policies to student outcomes. But both Campbell and school board President Geoffery McAnalloy attribute progress, like seven straight years of increases in high school graduation rates, to the stability of the arrangement and the trust it’s helped to build between the board and superintendent.
“When you’ve got 123 languages spoken and half your population is English-learners, you have to get out of the way of the superintendent and her team to let them do the work,” McAnalloy said.
There are anecdotal data, too. When she attends conferences and meetings, Superintendent Campbell has asked other superintendents to estimate the proportion of the board meetings in which they’re discussing student results, like discipline data, test scores, or grades.
“Mostly, they say 10 percent,” she said. “In Federal Way, it’s 70 percent or 80 percent.”
Often, for board members, the adjustment can be a tough one. Before policy governance took hold, McAnalloy recalled being deeply invested in building relationships at “his” five schools. He worried about the fact that they were using five different science textbooks and was devastated after the Black student union at one school criticized a Martin Luther King Jr. event. While those were all important things for the district to know and keep informed about, it wasn’t really his place to try to fix them, he said.
“I was overwhelmed. I was in operations but didn’t realize I was in operations. I had to step back,” he said. “It wasn’t easy. It frustrated me at first because I felt like I was losing control and I think that’s part of what [is challenging] for school board members.”
Nor is the arrangement a cakewalk for superintendents. Done right, it means there are far fewer places for a weak leader to hide in a public meeting, Campbell said.
Policy governance doesn’t mean that board members shouldn’t bring concerns to superintendents or make suggestions about better ways to approach operational problems, but it does mean board members aren’t the ones who ultimately decide what to do about them. In Federal Way, for example, board members can suggest “op-ideas” to Campbell who can choose to act on those recommendations or not.
The approach is probably not for all districts, particularly those with high levels of turnover or rampant distrust between board and superintendent. And it can initially result in pushback or even a change in board composition. It may take deeper culture change to really take root. (Federal Way formally adopted policy governance in 2010 but did not really adhere to its tenets until 2013, Campbell and McAnalloy said.)
But it’s a way of life now in Federal Way.
“A good board member knows that they’re not looking at one isolated individual incident or school; they’re on the balcony, looking at the whole district and understanding it’s a policy needle they’re moving, not a personnel or a project needle,” Campbell said. “When you’re in the project and people stuff, you’re not able to impact a whole system.”
Many state school boards associations offer training in the basics of policy governance, as do other nonprofits and consulting groups. Carver’s organization also offers free resources on the model.
Q: Our board does not represent the demographics of our community. What do we need to do to shift it?
A: The district must begin that conversation on its own—and engage outside networks to line up support for people of color who show interest.
Manny Cruz was elected to the Salem, Mass., school committee in 2017, in a wave that saw four Latino candidates rise to public office in the city. Cruz, a Dominican-American who identifies as Afro-Latino, had ample training. He’d served in a number of important civic roles, such as a mentor at LEAP for Education, a college-access nonprofit, and as the chair of the Massachusetts governor’s Statewide Youth Council. At 24, he was able to draw on those civic experiences—and, crucially, the networks they created—to bolster his run for committee.
“I think the disadvantage that Latinos, as relatively new immigrants, may face is we don’t have the same built-in political capital and access to fundraising and volunteers,” said Cruz, who is also the director of advocacy for Latinos for Education, a nonprofit that helps to develop, place, and connect Latino leaders in charter and education nonprofit boards in the Boston and Houston areas. “The difference in my story was from the time I was a 15-year-old kid at the Boys and Girls Club, I was building and cultivating political capital and community connections that came back to me.”
The mismatch between school board and community demographics has been among the most persistent problems plaguing local governance. Surveys have consistently found that they tend to be more white than the actual communities they serve—certainly more so than the demographics of the school-age population.
The average school board is 90 percent white. Meanwhile, new data from the Education Week Research Center finds that 86 percent of respondents said they had no Latino school board members and 80 percent said they had no Black members. Fewer than half surveyed said that their boards reflected the racial makeup of their students “a lot.”
And that means a key perspective is missing.
“Too often, we’re making decisions at a board level that are financial, or about the data and the evidence, and while you need that, there’s also the cultural nuance and the experience of kids and families,” said Amanda Fernández, the founder and CEO of Latinos for Education.
So what can districts do better? First, begin to set up the experiences for civic engagement for youths of color like those that Cruz experienced. Second, Fernández said, districts need to make an actual commitment to board diversity: “If you’re going to join a board that just doesn’t have that orientation, then you’re constantly going to be fighting the uphill battle of being ‘the only voice,’ which is like an extra tax Latino and Black leaders feel like they have to carry.”
And finally, districts need to get supports lined up for those individuals who do decide they’re interested in running. Financing is often a critical concern: It costs both time and money to run for a board, print campaign literature, and assemble volunteers who can knock on doors, so districts need to help connect interested candidates to nonprofit organizations that can help.
Plenty of communities lack local organizations that are well equipped to play those roles. But there are things that school districts can do nevertheless, Fernández said. “I think you start by building the awareness in the Latino community about what the role of a board is, what the opportunity is, and why it’s important that there are diverse voices on the board. I wouldn’t try to have that conversation myself,” she said. “I would identify an existing [Latino] board member, even if it’s in another town, who can speak to what the experience is, and the need, and therefore can create a stronger connection.”
Parent associations, civically active members of the community, and Latinos serving in other political roles who can talk about public service are all sources who can help to develop those networks.
“You can hold forums on the opportunity, but then you have to quickly have the supports lined up,” Fernández said.
Latinos for Education stands to be one of the groups that can help build more such networks. It’s now developing a fellowship specifically aimed at prepping Latinos for elected school board roles. It hopes to roll it out by late 2021.
A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2020 edition of Education Week as Building Better School Boards: 3 Strategies for District Leaders