This post is drawn from Chapter 3 of my forthcoming book, Building a High-Impact Board-Superintendent Partnership: 13 Critical Questions You Need to Answer, which describes several formidable barriers to school boards doing really high-impact governing work and examines proven strategies for overcoming them. This article deals with two of the barriers: under-developed school board composition and the centrifugal force pulling board members apart.
Under-developed School Board Composition
A couple of months ago I sat in on a three-hour work session of the governance committee of the board of a nonprofit community and economic development corporation, refining a profile of attributes and qualifications the corporation should use in identifying candidates to fill upcoming vacancies on the board, for example: “successful experience on other nonprofit boards,” “a passionate commitment to developing our community’s economy,” “a collaborative team player,” “extensive connections with key stakeholders in our community,” “willing and able to commit the time necessary to participate actively in governing,” etc. The plan, which was subsequently executed, was to use the refined profile in recruiting candidates for open board seats. This is a common strategy in the nonprofit world for strengthening the board’s governing capacity. It’s straightforward and simple to implement, and I can attest to the positive impact it’s had on the governing functions of hundreds of nonprofits.
By contrast, the open seats on the overwhelming majority of school boards are filled by election, which means school district executives and board members have no direct influence on their board’s composition. The very sensible attitude is that we’ve got to work with the members the electorate sends, meaning that indirect strategies must be employed in developing a school board’s composition. The most common strategy is to provide new board members with governance education and training, including attendance at state and national conference sessions focusing on governance; orientation of incoming board members; and learning through doing, principally by participation in board standing committees. Some districts, but not many so far as I can tell, have attempted to indirectly influence the electorate as a way of building their boards’ composition – by sending board members out to speak in forums such as chamber of commerce, Junior League, and Rotary luncheon meetings, telling audiences about the board’s role and functions and the attributes and qualifications that make for effective board members.
The Centrifugal Force Affecting the Board
One of the reasons that it’s so difficult to transform school boards into high-performing governing teams is the centrifugal force created by the election process. Many if not most newly elected board members, in my experience, arrive in the boardroom feeling conflicted. On the one hand, my interviews indicate they really are committed to student achievement as the preeminent bottom line of the district, and they sincerely want to work with their board colleagues in doing a credible job of governing. On the other hand, these newcomers to the board naturally feel loyal to the constituency that elected them. Sad to say, I’ve come across many instances where the centrifugal force created by constituent loyalty seriously dilutes board members’ commitment to teamwork and conflicts with their governing responsibilities. I encountered a dramatic case of divided loyalty working against sound governance a few months ago: a new board member who voted against putting a sales tax increase on the ballot in the upcoming election even though she was convinced (so she testified in my interview with her) that her colleagues on the board had made a compelling case for the ballot issue. She just couldn’t “betray” the anti-tax residents making up a large and highly vocal part of her constituency.
There’s no way of totally eliminating the centrifugal force that the election process creates; that’s an in-built, inevitable result of the way school board members are chosen. But there are practical ways of mitigating the force, including developing your board as a governing organization – its role, structure, and processes – making sure board members understand their governing role and functions, and engaging in well-designed and executed team-building exercises.