When Julie Cole decided to run for school board, she did her homework.
For a year, Cole attended every Hurst-Euless-Bedford, Tex., school board meeting—and reviewed meeting agendas beforehand. During meetings, she sat near district administrators so she could lean over and ask questions about discussions and proposals she had trouble understanding.
“I just made it my mission to learn everything that I could learn,” said Cole, who is now the school board president for the 24,000-student north Texas school district.
Cole, a senior manager with a financial investment firm, had spent the year prior to her election enrolled in Hurst-Euless-Bedford’s Ambassador Academy, a program that offers residents an in-depth look at district operations and what it takes to serve as a school board member.
The year of independent study was the culmination of a years-long effort to better understand the school board and district, one that left her prepared to win a school board seat in 2013 and hit the ground running.
Each year across the nation, thousands of people are elected or appointed to serve on school boards for the first time. Few of them benefit from the same kind of intense and intentional preparation that the Hurst-Euless-Bedford school board provides.
In a nationwide EdWeek Research Center survey of nearly 1,600 school board members conducted in October 2020, only 1 in 5 respondents indicated that they were “very prepared” to serve on the school board during their first six months in the position. Thirty percent of survey participants reported that they were “somewhat unprepared” or “very unprepared” to fill the roles.
Months after winning elections, new members in Hurst-Euless-Bedford are thrust into roles as stewards of a multi-million-dollar organization: their local school district. In some communities, school districts are the largest employer, run the largest food-service program, and serve as the largest provider of public transportation.
“People have a tendency to look at [school systems] as little bitty mom-and-pop shops,” said Michael Adamson, the director of board services for the Indiana School Boards Association. “And that’s really not true.”
With all the responsibilities that new members must shoulder, it is critical to get them acclimated as quickly as possible. The learning process then can take years, said Adamson, who served over two decades in two separate stints as a school board member in Avon, Ind., a 10,000-student district in the suburbs of Indianapolis.
There are three things school boards can do to help new members acclimate quickly: educate the public about how school boards operate, emphasize board teamwork, and assign mentors to new members.
Educate the Public
Participants in Hurst-Euless-Bedford’s Ambassador Academy tackle topics such as board member duties, school finance, graduation standards, and state testing requirements, and take bus tours of the 44-square-mile district to learn about schools and other district facilities. Outside of class, they must attend at least one school board meeting in their district and another in a neighboring district.
Of the district’s seven school board members, five are graduates of the Ambassador Academy. The other two helped launched it. District administrators, principals, and school board members can nominate candidates for the academy.
“We don’t like to leave a lot to chance,” said Cole, who, as board president, serves as the academy’s organizer and lead instructor. “There’s no doubt, when we’re done, that they have a clear understanding of what board service is all about.”
The district spends about $15,000 per year for the program, which has become more than an effort to scout for new board members. The academy, which began in 2010, now has hundreds of alumni, “a cadre of really uber-informed individuals who are ambassadors and can speak about the district to a broad range of people,” Cole said.
The system has garnered the district statewide and national praise.
Earlier this year, Hurst-Euless-Bedford won the Texas Association of School Administrators’ 2020 Outstanding School Board Award. In 2016, the National School Boards Association honored the board with its Magna Award Grand Prize for developing creative solutions to school district challenges.
“We have leadership programs within our district to try to [develop] principals, assistant principals, central office staff,” said Steve Chapman, the Hurst-Euless-Bedford schools superintendent. “Well, we ought to be looking at some type of succession planning for board members as well.”
Chapman nominated Cole, the current school board president, to participate in the academy back when she was a parent-teacher association leader and a member of the football booster club and he was the district’s deputy superintendent.
“It’s important for us that the folks who run for the board understand what’s going to be expected of them,” Chapman said. “We want them to understand what board service is all about. So often in school districts, folks just say, ‘I think I’ll run for the school board. That sounds like fun.’ But they don’t really understand.”
In Texas, state law mandates that new school board members attend 25 hours of training in their first year. The covered topics range from open meetings protocol and employment law to cybersecurity.
School boards and superintendents also must attend an annual three-hour training session that can help foster mutual understanding and develop district goals.
Getting a peek behind the curtain on school board operations and the federal and state requirements that districts must adhere to is revelatory for many new members. Once the new members are sworn in, their focus must shift from confrontation to cooperation as they work side-by-side with people they do not always see eye-to-eye with.
The annual training can also be key to developing and repairing relationships. That is because, to get elected, many new school board members criticized their new colleagues and the district superintendent—or at least took issues with decisions they made, said Susan Whisenant, the director of curriculum and instruction design for the Texas Association of School Boards.
“It really is a transition from, ‘Wait, wait, ‘I got elected to get some stuff done’ to ‘I’m entering a system that I have to work within,’” Whisenant said.
Understanding how to find common ground with new colleagues is the most important lesson that newcomers can learn: They have just one vote, and there is very little they can accomplish alone, said Adamson of the Indiana School Boards Association.
“People do get attracted to the position for single-issue causes or because of conflict in the community or high-profile issues that are unfolding,” he said. “But there’s a difference between individual authority and speaking with one voice. By themselves, they have zero authority. Their authority really only resides with the group.”
Find Trusted Advisers
To help ease the transition to the school board, it may help to provide mentors for new members, and not just formal training. Some of the toughest things to learn are not spelled out in school board bylaws or seminars on collective bargaining agreements.
In Hurst-Euless-Bedford, the onboarding process for newcomers includes lessons on school board operating procedures and one-on-meetings with members of the superintendent’s executive leadership team. The district also pairs new members with more experienced colleagues who can serve as mentors and answer questions about appropriate meeting attire or how to solicit support from colleagues on potentially divisive votes.
“It’s somebody who’s been on the board for a while to ask those ‘silly’ questions and to really kind of hold their hand,” said Cole, who has served on the school board for eight years. “It’s about teaching the basics.”
Having newcomers lean on more experienced members helps them understand how to approach their new roles, but also gives them access to institutional knowledge, said Pat Hugley Green, chairwoman of the Muscogee County, Ga., school board and the president of the Georgia School Boards Association.
During her 15 years on the school board, Hugley Green has seen board members come aboard each election cycle with what they assume are new ideas about improving education in the district. They “often think that because it’s a new idea to them that it’s never been thought of before,” she said.
Veteran members can also help their new colleagues understand how serving on the school board can change how they may be perceived in the community. The transition from school board critic or concerned resident to being a target of criticism is often tough for new board members, Hugley Green said.
Managing the expectations of people who supported your campaign or shared your concerns about the school district can be even tougher.
Acquaintances could expect help from new school board members in dealing with a dispute with a teacher or principal or concerns about curriculum or homework policies. But new board members have only one person that reports to them: the superintendent. And the superintendent, not the school board, manages the district and its employees.
“The quickest way to make enemies is to become a school board member,” Adamson said. “I’m fond of telling school board members they are accountable for everything, but they manage nothing. That’s a tough reality.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2020 edition of Education Week as Getting New School Board Members Up to Speed