Defining the Role of School Boards: Architect, Communicator, Leader
In the world of school reform and improvement, attention is seldom paid to the role of the school board. Yet most school districts across the country are governed by an elected or appointed school board whose members are the ultimate architects of the district’s plan for increasing student achievement. Therefore, a clear understanding of the purpose, role, and appropriate functions of school boards—on the part of both board members and school and district practitioners—can contribute greatly to accomplishing ambitious improvement goals. This month’s newsletter explains the difference in purpose and function between a district’s school board and its administration, summarizes different approaches to school board organization, and illustrates the significant role school boards can play in supporting increased student achievement.
School Boards and District Administration
Many models exist that illustrate appropriate relationships between school boards and school district administrations, but they all share one common principle: The school board governs and the superintendent administers the school district. Although it sounds straightforward, this underlying principle can be very difficult to fully understand and even more complicated to implement. A book published by the National School Boards Association titled The Key Work of School Boards Guidebook (Gemberling, Smith, & Villani, 2000) delineates the differences between the two. The school board provides high-level guidance and direction for the school district. Its job is to
- Build community support by pursuing a broad base of involvement.
- Communicate clearly with all school district stakeholders.
- Adopt policies to support district initiatives
- Approve comprehensive plans developed by the superintendent.
- Allocate adequate funding and align resources.
- Monitor progress toward the achievement of district goals.
The superintendent, on the other hand, serves as the chief executive officer of the school district with more concrete responsibilities for leading and managing day-to-day operations. The superintendent must
- Implement school board decisions.
- Lead strategic planning initiatives.
- Make recommendations to the board.
- Develop, monitor, and evaluate the effectiveness of programs.
- Model support for district change initiatives and ensure that they are implemented.
Confusion about these roles can cause problems and have a negative effect on the operation of a school district. Boards that attempt to micromanage policy implementation, circumvent the superintendent by working directly with employees, or operate as individuals rather than as a team can be both divisive and disruptive. In high-functioning school districts, roles are clearly delineated, and the relationship between board of education members and the district administration is clear. Before defining his own and the board’s role, says one Colorado superintendent, “I had no clear direction, board members were in the day-to-day business, and I spent my time trying to please five people” (Dawson & Quinn, 2000). Successful efforts to clarify roles and responsibilities resulted in a productive transition; the superintendent later reported: “I have a clear picture of my job and my relationship with the board acting as one—not five individuals.”
Reprinted with the permission of the Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement. © 2008 Learning Point Associates. All rights reserved.
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