As my recent video interview with Board President Barbara Kruse and Superintendent Marc Schaffer indicates, Colorado’s Thompson School District is blazing a new trail in the area of board member engagement. Like many districts around the county these days, the Thompson School District is paying close attention to strengthening Board member engagement in carrying out their traditional role: making governing decisions and judgments in the boardroom. This obviously makes the best of sense since there is ample evidence that a school district’s success in carrying out its educational mission depends heavily on effective governance, as does the superintendent’s success in carrying out her chief executive leadership role. But as Barbara and Marc recount in our interview, their District is at the same time building a strong role for Board members outside the traditional boardroom – as ambassadors and diplomats both within the District organization and in the wider community. This role includes sitting in on administrative and faculty meetings and observing classrooms inside the District organization, and also representing the District in in the wider community. This evolving non-traditional Board member role will most likely, according to Barbara and Marc, in the not-too-distant future include a Board “speakers bureau” that books Board members to speak in such forums as the monthly chamber of commerce luncheon meeting.
As Barbara and Marc point out, the case for involving board members in the wider community as ambassadors and diplomats is compelling. If the parents of students in public school districts around the country were our districts’ only “paying customers,” public school districts wouldn’t face such a daunting public relations and image building challenge. But local taxpayers, the majority of whom these days don’t have children in public school classrooms, pay a large part of the local share of the K-12 tab, and these paying customers can be a really hard sell. For one thing, many of them appear to share the widespread distrust of public institutions, and unless they happen to have kids in the public schools, they’re unlikely to know much about what’s going on in their public school district educationally or administratively.
The good news is that a steadily increasing number of school districts around the county are engaging their board members as diplomats and ambassadors in the wider community. The bad news is that the Thompson School District still stands out as an exception to the rule that board members should confine their work to the boardroom. I’m not sure why so few school board members are currently actively engaged in the obviously critical external/stakeholder relations arena, but two factors are likely to account for paucity of involvement. For one thing, many board members continue to arrive at the boardroom seeing themselves as representatives of the constituencies that put them there, not of the school district they’ve been elected to govern, and they all too often bring with them the infamous “watch-the-critters-so-they-don’t-steal-the-store” mentality, which turns them into internal critics rather than district advocates. For another, in my experience many if not most superintendents and their senior administrators don’t really welcome active school board involvement in external affairs, doubting that they are sufficiently willing and able to acquit themselves well in in the external relations arena. Whatever the reasons, school districts all over the country are failing to capitalize on their board members as a precious resource on the external relations and image building front, at a steep cost in terms of reduced public support.