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Professional Opinion

The DNA of an Effective School Board

Maximizing the potential of your governance team


DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) may be the greatest discovery of the 21st century in understanding the physical makeup of living organisms. It’s also known as genetic code, since it contains the instructions to create a complete functioning organism.

The segments that carry these instructions are called genes, which determine our personality and physical traits. The combination of these genes is key to enabling individuals to thrive.

Similarly, a school board can be genetically wired for success. Each board member brings a unique set of genes to the table. As a former school board chairman in Charlotte, N.C., I’ve seen how some combinations of genes reap amazing results while others prevent a board from staying focused on its core business—student achievement. Like humans, each school board is different. But in my experience there are several components that must be present to maximize the potential of the governance team.

1. The Business Sense Gene

Some people always focus on the bottom line—how decisions impact the district’s ability to reinvest or how sustainable certain proposals might be. To ensure the school board is a good steward of the community’s assets, look for board members who bring this trait to the table.

I remember the political pressure to seek short-term grants. Fortunately, we had a member on our board who would always ask, “What happens after the grant money runs out? Can this strategy be sustained financially over time?” By asking bottom-line questions, she prompted us to rethink some of our positions.

2. The Student Achievement Gene

The mantra for all school boards is “student achievement.” However, it sometimes becomes lost in the shuffle of day-to-day operations. Some board members excel at keeping student success top of mind and bring the team back to this core objective. These are the members who will engage in dialogue over the best instruction strategy. Embrace these colleagues; they will always have student achievement at the heart of their argument.

3. The Public Service Gene

Some board members become involved as an entryway to public service. They want to volunteer their time giving back to the community. School boards, like other segments of civic life and government, need individuals with an eye on how to improve the community’s overall quality of life.

4. The Big Picture Gene

There are individuals who are blessed with the ability to see the big picture. They not only consider student achievement, but they simultaneously have an eye on how the budget is working, how the community is engaged, and how the board is doing overall. They easily see the cause-and-effect of decisions and how the actions of the board and the school district contribute to the whole child and community.

One former school board colleague of mine would always ask about health or social welfare issues. She was concerned about the before- and after-school activities of our students as well as parent-teacher nights at school. She always kept us considering the whole child.

5. The Change Gene

Finally, it’s important to have a board member who is not afraid to bring new thinking to the table. Evolution is built on genes that have mutated to adapt to changing environments. Without these mutations, we’d never make any improvements. Nurture those members of your board who push the envelope. They just may be the key to the success of future boards.

What’s in Your School Board’s DNA?

The answer will guide your district’s future. While some individuals have a combination of these traits, it’s important that all of the above elements are represented on the board. And when election or appointment time rolls around, consider how each candidate will contribute to your board’s genetic makeup.

Once you’ve established the ideal DNA for your school board, stick with it! Remember, DNA is passed from one generation—or in this case, school board—to the next.

Arthur Griffin is the senior vice president of the Urban Advisory Resource for McGraw-Hill Education and works with team members on strategies to improve student achievement. Prior to joining McGraw-Hill Education, he served 17 years on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Board of Education.