Role of a School Board MemberEven for those new board members who have studied the role of the board and attended numerous board meetings before they ran for election, the reality of school board service can be very different from what they imagined. Like any challenging leadership position, school board service is a learning experience that will stretch and grow one’s leadership skills.
Schools exist to provide appropriate educational opportunities for our children. With this in mind it is vital to maintain the principle that all board decisions and actions of individual board members should be prioritized by what is best for students and what enhances student achievement. This can often be difficult as different constituents ask for different actions and different decisions on topics that vary greatly.
A fundamental rule, often misunderstood by new board members and sometimes not followed by experienced board members, is that individual board members have no individual authority to act on behalf of the school board or the district. School board action and authority can only be exercised by the school board as one whole, single entity. When the meeting is called to order, each board member is empowered with the right to discuss and vote on each issue. Only a majority of the board has the ability to set policy, establish the school district budget, negotiate contracts or make requests of the superintendent. The only employee of the board is the superintendent and the superintendent is the only school district employee the board may make requests of. By a vote of the majority, the board may empower, the chair or subcommittee to take action outside of the board meeting. But such power is only given by the full board, following discussion and a vote at a duly called and legally held meeting. In most matters school boards are legislative bodies, meaning they set and adopt policy. The exception to this rule is when a board serves as a judicial body conducting staff or student hearings.
The board and superintendent form the school district leadership team. The effective functioning of this team requires mutual trust and a clear understanding as to the school board’s role in governance and the superintendent’s roles in administering the daily functions of the district. This does not mean everyone agrees on the issues or the best way to address challenges. Indeed, healthy debate is vital for prudent school board decision-making. A well-functioning team with a high-level trust will have vigorous and impassioned discussions over those issues they care greatly about. Trust also means that all board members will support board decisions. Respecting that majority rules is a key component to effective school board governance. To do otherwise reduces team effectiveness and tends to diminish respect for the board from the staff and community.
Last, school board leadership should be focused on end results. The board should ask questions of what, why, how much and how well? Board action should be focused on mission statements, goals-based outcomes, local board policies, academic standards, and sufficient communication with the community.