Defining the Role of School Boards: Architect, Communicator, Leader (page 2)
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.”
Models for School Boards
Several models exist that help to paint a picture of how a board of education can establish a productive relationship with school district administration. Some researchers suggest a corporate model, in which the school board is seen as a board of directors whose chief responsibilities are designing the district’s “comprehensive educational strategy,” selecting an operations manager for the organization, and answering to the “shareholders”—in this case, the community, all of whom have a stake in the success of the school district (Brown, Peterkin, & Finkelstein, 1992).
Another author suggests that an accountability model can address the common problem of school board interference in the daily administration of the school district. A relationship based on accountability reassures school board members because it provides them with data about district operations that they want and need and establishes a framework for the ongoing collection and use of data. Author D.B. Reeves (2000) suggests that a relationship built on accountability “can provide board members with a blend of very specific school-level information, along with qualitative and narrative data that puts this information in proper context” (p. 206). District operations also benefit from the accountability model since it ensures that administrators have access to the same information. This system, says Reeves, becomes a functional framework “within which all other initiatives, programs, evaluations, plans, and other educational policy matters” facing the district can be considered (p. 208).
A collaborative learning communities model offers a third picture of constructive school board and district administration interaction. Within this model, the board and other members of the school community work together and learn together for the benefit of the school district. Author Peter Senge and his coauthors (2000) emphasize trusting relationships rather than a data or functional structure as the basis for board-district interaction. To establish a trusting relationship, Senge suggests it is good practice to make public as much information as possible, including creating a public record of private conversations. He stresses that if school board members model the civil behavior they would like schools to demonstrate, their own tendency to disagree for the sake of public drama will be eliminated. The school board also can deflate emotionally charged decisions such as closing a local school or funding special programs by focusing discussion on the observable data that have been collected. Senge further suggests that a school board that wants to operate as a learning community needs to practice talking about its values and take steps to ensure that discussions occur with calm consideration.
Reprinted with the permission of the Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement. © 2008 Learning Point Associates. All rights reserved.
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