Anatomy of a Successful School Board
featured on the Learning First Alliance website, February 27, 2014
While it may not be evident from voting patterns, casting votes for local school board members may have greater impact on a community’s overall quality of life than any other vote cast. Quality public schools bring the things that ensure a high quality of life — strong economic climate, better jobs, civic engagement, more citizens voting and an emphasis on the arts. And quality public schools are tied directly to the performance and effectiveness of their school boards.
All of us should pay more attention to our school boards — to electing them, supporting them and monitoring them. While many people today believe that too much local control has been wrested from local school boards, their role remains critical to the success of the schools they govern.
Voters elect a school board to represent them in the oversight of their schools. That is our system of government, and it’s a good one. School boards then spend the public’s money on educating children, touching the future as no other entity does. School boards set the tone for school districts — for student achievement, continuous improvement and financial management.
Successful school boards are made up of individuals without personal agendas and with a desire that all children have the opportunities that come with great schools. They understand that they are a bridge between the community and its schools, with one foot in each. They know they are stewards of the public’s interest, and they are responsive when the public reaches out to them with questions or issues.
They also recognize that they and the superintendent are the face of public education in their community. They take this duty seriously, and they engage the public with public schools. They work to gain the support and trust of the public, and when that happens, the climate is right for quality public schools.
Successful school boards do not bicker. Members respect that each of them got there the same way — voters put them there. They find ways to work together, because the only power that they are given is as a corporate body. They tackle issues that they do not agree on with an understanding of various viewpoints and the ability to compromise. They debate policy until they can reach agreement and stand strong together in support of educators and students.
Examples of successful school boards can be found across the nation. And North Texas, in particular (where I am from), is fortunate to have many strong, successful school districts that draw the majority of their families to public schools and keep them there. The performance of their school boards is directly linked to the success of those districts.
For example, Coppell ISD’s Board of Trustees in 2011 showed a visionary agenda when the district opened New Tech High School, offering creative and alternative ways for students to learn. Denton ISD is served by a school board with a vision for using technology in new and innovative ways that serve students, teachers and families. District families can easily access grades and attendance records, as well as register their students online. The Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD school board has used the Baldrige model to ensure continuous improvement, making students responsible for their own learning.
In case you think things are easy out in the suburbs, these districts share many of the same challenges as urban districts, with large numbers of students speaking multiple languages and living in poverty. Successful school boards do not use demographics as an excuse.
For those school trustees who bicker and refuse to work together, and who offer nothing but split votes, no such thanks is due. But perhaps a wake-up call to their public is long overdue. It matters who you elect to your school board.
If a community truly wants great schools, its citizens must elect an effective school board and then support and monitor that board. And who knows? Some of those citizens may have to run for their school board themselves!