5 questions for new school board members

Originally published by ECM Publishers, Inc, at hometownsource.com, 11-5-2015

5 Questions for new school board members

by Joe Nathan

Congratulations to newly elected and re-elected school board members in rural, suburban and urban Minnesota communities.

As you enjoy your victories, here are five questions I hope you will consider. These are based on decades of work with and learning from school boards, superintendents, educators, families and students all over the state.

The questions also are based on a very contentious school board race in St. Paul, where I live. None of the incumbents were returned; one declined to run, two dropped out when challengers were endorsed and one was defeated in the election. As a result, four new board members were elected to fill the four seats up for election.

St. Paul was just one of 48 district school boards that held elections for members Nov. 3, according to Greg Abbott, Minnesota School Boards Association communications director. Sharing experiences can be insightful for other districts around the state.

Before you begin work on the budget, please take time to do two things. Please consider and then answer two critical questions: What should our priorities be, and what should our most important (measurable) goals be?

Frequently I’ve seen boards skip these two questions. Schools rarely can do everything well. Time and money is limited. You can’t offer every language. You can’t offer every form of dual credit. You can’t pay teachers as much as they deserve. You’ll soon see, and you may already have seen it during the campaign, that you cannot completely satisfy everyone.

So a district has to set priorities and goals. One of the mistakes that I think St. Paul’s board made was that it did not have clear, measurable goals with proposed dates for accomplishment.

To answer the questions about priorities and goals, boards ought to ask two more questions: What’s going very well, and what most needs improving in our schools? Sometimes board members will find themselves encouraged by district administrators to be “cheerleaders” for the district. I’d encourage board members not to take on this role.

Yes, it’s entirely appropriate for school board members to share successes with the community. People naturally and appropriately want to know what’s going well. They want to see what’s happening with their taxes.

But I think one of the reasons that St. Paul has four new board members is that the incumbents did not do a good job of listening carefully, acknowledging and then acting on significant problems. Data was available, for example, showing a growing number of residents were leaving the district (this information is available at no cost from Minnesota Department of Education). Concerns were raised in surveys of students and faculty. But many residents felt the board was not listening.

That leads to the final question to consider: What is the board’s relationship with the superintendent? Let’s be clear. The school board is in charge, and the superintendent is your employee. Hopefully you have a talented, insightful, creative, hardworking superintendent with a great deal of integrity. Board members should ask and carefully consider the superintendent’s recommendations, suggestions and proposals.

But the board also ought to be listening to and learning from families, educators, current students, community members and graduates. Some of this information will support the superintendent’s recommendations. But some boards unwisely ignore or downplay strong concerns or excellent suggestions that come from outside the district administration. I think this is part of what happened in St. Paul.

So congratulations on your victory. Thanks for being willing to be a board member. You have an important job. It can be very gratifying, as well as challenging. I hope using the questions suggested above will help you and the students, families and communities you serve.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.