School boards usually only make news when something goes drastically wrong. Just take a quick look into the mess currently being sorted out in New Orleans, where it seems Superintendent Anthony Amato and his board have been in court more than in meetings. Contentious school boards and embattled superintendents might make good headlines, but they don't accurately represent the 95,000 school board members serving on 15,000 local public school boards across the country who work together and with superintendents to provide the best possible education for their students.
Yet, while most school boards aren't as contentious as New Orleans, each group is full of battles, large and small, among members and between members and the superintendent. It is the process of how these issues are handled that determine the effectiveness of the school board, and ultimately, the effectiveness of the education the district provides.
This Is Mine, That Is Yours
Creating an effective school board--and it does take work--is really all about the ability to work together. Although every board's ultimate goal is to better the education its district offers students, cooperation and trust among board members and between the board and superintendent is the first step down that road. Vickie Markavitch's recipe for board harmony is a dash of clearly defined roles, a pinch of courage, and a large dose of commitment to the education of children. As the president of the Superintendency Institute of America and a superintendent who has worked in three different districts, she should know.
"When I came [to the Penn-Harris-Madison School Corp. in Mishawaka, Ind.]," she says, "the board was split, the community was split. The board was unable to function as a board." Markavitch wasn't sure she wanted the job if it meant handling such a divided set of individuals who were clearly "heavily into micromanagement.
At my interview, I told them I couldn't work with a split board. They said, 'We know we're bad; we're tired of being bad. You're the first person we agree on. Won't you please help us?' " She took on the challenge, but before she could begin the job she knew she had to help create a better board.
Her first task was to get everyone talking to each other. She went on retreats with board members in order to build bridges between individuals, eliminating grudges that had built up through long histories of conflict and unresolved issues. Using John and Marian Carver's book Reinventing Your Board and the National School Boards Association's publication The Key Work of School Boards, Markavitch and her board members decided how they would do business.
Once everyone could speak civilly to everyone else it was time to define roles and set limits. They spent money on a consultant who helped them write a compact specifying which responsibilities belonged to the board and which were the purview of the superintendent.
"We drew little corrals on a piece of paper," Markavitch says. "This is my corral over here, what I'm supposed to be in charge of, and that is yours over there." The board has the responsibility and the right to decide what they want to accomplish, and to monitor carefully the progress of the district and the superintendent. How that gets done is up to the superintendent, the teachers and the administration.
"When bounds were stepped over, we could always step back to what we had agreed," she says. As part of their compact, they set up an annual evaluation schedule for the board to make sure the superintendent was accomplishing her tasks. The criteria for the evaluation? The exact same column of responsibilities and tasks they had all sat down to codify at the beginning of the job.
"It didn't just happen," Markavitch remembers. "It took a lot of work and time and commitment" to get everyone working together. After this work was completed, then she could get on to the work of fixing the district's budget and improving learning.
All in the Family
When a board is struggling, it's like a family trying to get along. Donald Kussmaul's "family" is a 650-student district in the northwest corner of Illinois. Kussmaul, former superintendent of the East Dubuque Unit (Ill.) School District, and president of the American Association of School Administrators, spent the last 21 years of his 36-year education career as superintendent. To be able to stay anywhere as a superintendent, he says, you have to build a good relationship with your community and with your board.
By staying in one district for so many years, Kussmaul enjoys a familiarity with the board members. The current board president is a teacher in another district that Kussmaul hired in his own district 20 years ago. Other members are a truck driver, an entrepreneur, an accountant, and recently, a former student. "When I saw a former student get elected, I thought, 'Maybe I've been around here long enough.' "
Part of his retirement, though, involves hiring and training the new superintendent. The board hired Kussmaul as a consultant to help with the continuation of the district's plan. It was worth the expenditure, he says, to have a smooth transition, but it's not something you see happening much in other districts.
"The usual response to a superintendent leaving is either 'We're glad they're gone,' or it's the superintendent saying, 'I'm outta here.' " Handling the transition in this way maintains continuity and brings the new superintendent up-to-speed. It's all part of the tribe-building Kussmaul says is key to his approach. "It's like a family reunion every time you have a board meeting."
Which isn't to say there is never dissent. In the mid-90s, the city performed a re-assessment on its property taxes and nearly doubled the amount taxpayers were paying. Residents were understandably upset. "The school district gets the largest portion of those tax dollars, so people were questioning how the district was operating," Kussmaul remembers.
A board committee went on a fact-finding mission to determine how the district had been managing to function when it was receiving money based on a property tax assessment from 1974 (the last time an assessment had been done). The media made assumptions "that we had been wasteful" when, in fact, it turned out the district had been borrowing money from its following year's revenue just to meet the current year's needs. "Now that the money was coming in like it should," says Kussmaul, "we could pay the debt and balance the budget."
The Board Point-of-View
How to bring a board together and get it working well are never straightforward tasks, and not always popular ones. When you ask Samuel Stringfield what made him accept an appointment to his Baltimore, Md., school board, he quips, "Poor judgment." Yet he'll also admit that he would have served another term on top of his five-and-a-half year stint if his current job, a professorship at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, hadn't lured him away.
Being on a school board, he says, is "an eight-year exercise in losing friends." Everyone from activists to grandmas yell at you; people have different definitions of what constitutes a good education; and everyone seems to have an opinion about how the school board should be run.
A school board suffers under the tension of trying to serve everyone equally in what Stringfield considers "an inherently unequal situation." There are schools with better resources and schools with less, neighborhoods that are more affluent and neighborhoods that are less so. In Stringfield's experience, "The squeaky wheel gets more attention than one that doesn't even know how to squeak," and it tends to be the affluent parents at the affluent schools who are good at squeaking.
Aside from the frustrations, he says having an appointed board, rather than an elected one, helped improve the process. "We had the freedom to listen to people equally. There was no political pressure" to follow through on campaign promises, for instance. "I could never be elected to anything," he admits. "I tend to speak my mind."
Stringfield's record as a board member remains a source of pride. "I happen to believe I did some good. We made a substantial difference in the future of Baltimore. We raised student achievement, raised test scores, raised graduation rates. I think we gave the city the hope that fixing public education is possible. [When you're on a school board], you feel like what you're doing matters."
Markavitch left Indiana for a different challenge in 2004. She found it in the new, five-person board for the county district in Waterford, Mich. All the members for this board had been school board members in their local districts, but as a county board, they had to oversee 28 disparate districts while managing to get along with one another.
"It's harder to be a board in an urban district," Markavitch says. "There are more political pressures. And it's so big, it's hard to come together, but I know we can make [our commitment to learning] work in urban districts."
A county board isn't really so different from a local board. In some ways it even has advantages over a board with a smaller purview. Its members are chosen from local boards, so they already have the experience of being on a school board. "They come to the table with the K-12 view," says Markavitch. "They've lived that."
The real difference is that a county board has to keep a "bigger picture view. We have big and small; rural, suburban and urban; rich and poor districts. We cannot have one policy for everyone--any policy structure has to be open and fluid. So we deal with the general rather than the specific." It's the difference between having the responsibility for policy and having the responsibility for implementing it. "We can help all the districts handle their special ed, but we don't deal directly with the parents."
In order to succeed in any situation, even a high-minority, high-poverty one, "there has to be a pervasive focus on learning," says Markavitch. Everyone--the board, the teachers, the superintendent--has to believe the school can make a difference. "Parent participation and community support are good, but [learning] can be accomplished without it." Once you have made it clear that you have high expectations for student achievement and you put in place the means to teach, assess, and remediate, you can let student achievement drive decisions.
"This is extremely hard work," Markavitch admits, "but if you're not wishy-washy on the commitment to all kids achieving, you can weather the political storms." You also win the respect of the board. When Markavitch left Indiana, her board gave her a statue of a winged horse as a symbol both of her flight and of the "corrals" she helped set up for them.
So what should a board do when it doesn't get along, when it doesn't understand its role? Just like the teachers and administration, professional development may be the key.
For Kussmaul, professional development is "a big part" of board member responsibility. All seven members of Kussmaul's board attended the state conference for school board electees and appointees, and the National School Board conference as well. It means spending the money, but "those are expenditures you can't afford not to make," says the former superintendent, when what is learned at these conferences could impact the way the board operates for years to come.
School board members should be invited to teaching or administrative conferences. Vickie Markavitch recently taught a best-practices session that had superintendents, administrators and teachers, but no board members. "You need to have board members at the table," she says, "if you are going to maximize understanding and cooperation."
To further cooperation, Kussmaul has the members of his board (and the superintendent) take the Myers-Briggs personality test. Administered with state board supervision and with the full cooperation of the participants, it furthers understanding of how different personalities approach an issue, allowing board members to build working relationships with others on the board who may have different ways of thinking and communicating. "It's not typical for a board to have good give-and-take," Kussmaul admits. "I've helped build that."
The high level of responsibility and public accountability, coupled with the low or non-existent salary, generally ensures that school board members are not in the job for the glory. They are usually there for what Kussmaul calls the right reason: they want to improve the school system for the kids. "If they come on board with an 'issue,' they become a system person. If you're there for the kids, the issues will follow."
Elizabeth Crane is freelance writer based in San Francisco who frequently covers education.