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Knowing what school board members and the school board director can and cannot do is critical for an effective school system.

Demystifying the role of the school board director

Knowing what school board members can and cannot do is critical for an effective school system

Key points:

In the often stormy waters of public education, there’s an analogy I like to use to describe what school boards do: I think of each school district as being a ship–not a smaller size boat, but more like an ocean liner. In a time when there is confusion around what school board directors do and don’t do, this analogy can help clarify the role of the school board.

Think of the superintendent as the captain, the one who’s responsible for steering the ship and making sure everyone is doing their job to ensure it’s heading in the right direction. School board directors are akin to the navigators. They’re looking out across the horizon and pointing toward where the ship should be heading. That direction should align with the community’s desires as well as the needs of the students. School boards lay out big, long-term priorities such as strategic planning, budgetary goals, and financial stability. They also support and evaluate the superintendent, who is their only employee.

However, ships can get knocked off course by tempests like a pandemic or even less cataclysmic factors, such as public opinion, changing demographics in the district, financial challenges, collective bargaining agreements, new board members, or a new superintendent. When that happens, the board’s role is to continue to look toward the destination and give the captain and staff the ability to right the ship and continue onward.

Roles and responsibilities

School board directors are elected to represent their constituents, but individuals may take different approaches to this role. Some believe they were elected to advance a specific platform or position. This is often called the delegate model of representation, in which they feel obliged to make decisions that closely align with their constituents without exercising their own judgment. Another approach is referred to as the trustee model, where the board member believes that voters elected them to use their best judgment in ways that are in line with the overall needs of the whole community and student body.

The trustee approach has the advantage of allowing school directors to consider all available information, some of which might not be widely known by the general public because, for example, they aren’t participating in board work sessions that allow school directors to dive deeply into all aspects of an issue. Also, following the trustee model enables the board member to gather additional input from students, families, and the community as needed to make the most informed decisions. 

Regardless of their approach, school board directors need to act in the best interest of students. Here in Washington state, one of our school board standards states that the job of school board members is to create conditions for students and staff success.

Because the nature of their elected office is collaborative, school board directors are in constant communication with various audiences: families, taxpayers, district voters, students, legislators, local government leaders, and their peers in other districts or associations. The form this communication takes may vary by district. For example, many boards have student representatives who can speak directly to their fellow members and have the ability to contribute input on policies.

This extensive communication gives school board directors the opportunity to explain the nuances of their job, which are often misunderstood by the general public. A school board director’s role is governance rather than management. I often share the example that if you’re a family member who’s frustrated by something going on in your student’s classroom, you might call a school board director who lives in your neighborhood to lodge a complaint against a teacher. However, that is not in any way the role of the school board.

School board directors must never forget that they are responsible for the overall strategic direction of a district. This ensures they don’t become fixated on one specific interest or devote too much energy to something that amounts to a tiny fraction of the district’s work. A best practice is to explicitly delegate authority to superintendents–and to provide sufficient resources and autonomy for them to do their jobs. This helps boards avoid diverting their attention from strategic matters.

Creating chaos vs. being a force for good

People often wonder how much power school boards wield. The truth is one individual school board director has no power—they only have the power to take any official action if they are part of a quorum.

Where it gets more complicated is the question of indirect power. Board members can have a lot of influence on their communities and on each other, and a responsible board member must be very thoughtful about their role. Board members can be a force for good by correcting misinformation, being supportive of the district, and sharing how the community can engage in collaborative conversations with the district. 

The biggest qualification

I have 18 years of school board experience, and when I joined my local school board, I thought I knew a lot about my school district. I did not. I was a parent, but I didn’t understand how the district worked and what the different factors were that went into educating students–and I’m not alone in this assessment among fellow board directors. 

One of the most important qualifications to be a successful school board member is having an open mind. You need the ability to listen, to learn, and to admit when you are mistaken. This is how I’ve witnessed several of my colleagues grow into successful board directors. Too often, I’ve seen board members come into the role laser-focused on a particular issue–like building infrastructure–only to quickly realize there are hundreds of issues affecting the district.

Another important qualification is being focused on what’s best for students–not just their academic success, but are the students seen and heard? Do they feel like they belong and can grow into who they were meant to be during their years of education? Ultimately, creating an environment where students can succeed is a board member’s top priority.

Focus on strategic vision

At a time when even education is more politicized than ever before, knowing what school board members can and cannot do is critical for an effective school system that serves student needs, while respecting the values of the communities they serve. For optimal impact, the school board’s focus should be on the overall strategic vision for the district, and ensuring students and staff have what they need to succeed.

Understanding that only responsible and informed school board directors can meaningfully contribute to the long-term success of a school district is the first step in fostering an environment where students can thrive. 

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