I serve on an excellent board of education and I have worked with enough boards over enough years to be able to identify the difference between an effective board and a detrimental board. I am convinced that the quality of the board is a key (but not sufficient) factor in the quality of education provided. I am also convinced, more than ever, that the quality of education provided in grades 1-12, especially in the high school years, determines very clearly how successful a student will be in higher education.
What should a board be doing and what makes a board highly effective. The responsibilities of a board include leadership, policy making, and administrative oversight. The word oversight is critical; boards should not be micromanaging and really don’t have the background to do so effectively. A good summary of what constitutes an effective board was provided by Kathryn Blumsack and Terry McCabe in an article on 7 Signs of Effective School Board Members published in the American School Board Journal (2013). The practices listed are:
- Going Solo’s a no-no. “As a school board member, you have no legal authority to fix problems or decide issues…you can only get your work done as part of a team.”
- Respect the team. “The best way to succeed as a board is to practice collaboration and respect.”
- Understand the difference between board and staff. I work with a board, I am a member of multiple boards and this practice is always important. Boards aren’t managers but rather oversee managers. We need to make sure the organization operates well but we don’t run the day to day matters of the organization.
- Share and defend your views, but listen to the views of others. “School board members must have the ability to compromise.”
- Do your homework and ask tough questions. This practice, of course, makes sense almost regardless of what you are doing. Not doing your homework is a guaranteed way to undercut your potential success.
- Respect your oath.
- Keep learning. After 24 years as provost, 5 years on a school board and many years of service on many boards, I know first-hand the importance of continuous learning. As an economist, this lesson is further reinforced.
To help ensure a highly functioning board, it is important to be aware of the warning signs of board problems. The University of the State of New York/New York State Education Department published ten such warning signs and I can, unfortunately, even identify boards that have encountered some of these issues and have been weakened as a result. Of the ten warning sings provided by New York, I have identified 5 which I think are especially critical and especially problematic:
- Lack of independent attitude or excessive conflict among trustees/board members.
- Poor board attendance at meetings.
- Lack of access to the chief financial officer.
- Existence of conflict of interest relationships or less than arm’s length transactions between the institution’s board members and organizations that conduct business with the institution.
- Lack of internal financial controls and written policies and procedures to safeguard, promote and protect the organization’s funds and other assets.
School boards are an important part of the fabric of our democracy. They make an enormous difference. There is little involvement that I am aware of by members of the higher education community in the local boards in this area. That may or may not be true in other areas but more of us should be involved and help in the important mission of preparing the future students that we will be so involved with.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.