Facilitating Effectiveness with Your School Board Team

by Craig L. Bangtson

Have you ever encountered a school board member who was belligerent, talked too much and had solutions for all the problems of the district or a board member who refused to read the board policy manual, discussed executive session matters with constituents or back stabbed a fellow board member?

Have you ever watched a board member take a stance on an issue in public, then vote differently without giving any advance notice or one who openly criticized a board decision when his vote was in the minority?

When you look at the functioning of your school board team (which includes the superintendent), do you sometimes find two or more people working separately on the same task? Is information that’s important to decision making sometimes not shared with the appropriate people? Are decisions not always carried out?

If these scenarios are familiar and you can answer "yes" to some of these questions, you and your board members may be working at cross purposes or needlessly duplicating efforts. The moment may be ripe to coordinate the work of your board team around a common set of operating procedures and goals that are understood and accepted by all.

Explicit Ground Rules

The answer for our district was a board team effectiveness workshop to help board members fulfill their roles at a time when they are challenged to accomplish more with fewer resources. Such a workshop can be used to assess current effectiveness of the board team, define practices to improve team effectiveness, develop or revise a board mission statement and define specific goals for the board and schools.

The workshop should be about two days in length, preferably at a location other than where board meetings are held, to facilitate relaxed discussion and concentrated work. Our workshop was facilitated by an outsider since it would be inappropriate for the superintendent to serve in this role.

The workshop must follow strict ground rules: each participant is expected to contribute, participants are not to compete with one another, no wrong questions or invalid answers exist, whatever the board team decides constitutes the answer, and answers are based on state and federal law, regulations and policy.

Board members need to agree on some basic principles: Focus on the situation, issue or behavior, not on the person; Maintain the self-confidence and self-esteem of others; Maintain constructive relationships with employees, peers and managers; Take initiative to make things better; Lead by example; Agree to disagree agreeably; and Support the majority decision.

Code of Conduct

Adopting a formal code of conduct can be a method for keeping your board on track and functional. Based on a decision made at our effectiveness workshop, the board agreed to a list of conditions that would help them work together better. In this written contract, the board members stated, "We do publicly commit ourselves collectively and individually" to the following 10 items:

1. Abide by the code of ethics of the state school board association.

2. Strive sincerely to build better relationships with one another and with the superintendent.

3. Vote our individual convictions and do what we can to destroy factionalism on the board.

4. Refuse to become involved with micromanagement.

5. Emphasize planning, policy making, and public relations, rather than management of schools.

6. Prepare ourselves carefully before each meeting so when we have the floor we can make comments that are concise, organized and clear.

7. Listen carefully and with courtesy when other people have the floor and are speaking during board meetings.

8. Set clear goals for the superintendent.

9. Support the superintendent and help him or her be as effectual as possible as long as he or she is the superintendent.

10. Establish goals for our school district and to make sure the community is aware of these goals.

In addition, board members agreed to speak with colleagues who violated any portion of the agreement. If after such a talk, consensus was not reached, the issue would be brought to the entire board for review.

Under this agreement, board members who find themselves in the minority on an issue are expected to fully support the decision of the board or fully support the process and respect the decision of the board. To be a successful school board member, the two most necessary characteristics are a willingness to discuss an opposing point of view in a respectful manner and the ability to support a decision on which they voted in the minority.

Establishing Trust

The board effectiveness workshop is designed to root out the underlying problems. These typically deal with communication, leadership or trust.

Communication problems often are at the root of ineffective school board teams. The symptoms of communications problems arise when board members fail to be open, come to meetings unprepared, surprise each other or make inappropriate public statements.

Leadership problems occur when board members take political stances, fail to give or follow directions, lack management skills, fail to set goals or work to achieve goals and fail to present or accept alternatives. A lack of trust arises when someone’s confidence is breached, an action is based on a hidden agenda, a team member fails to show loyalty or support to another or someone’s authority is circumvented.

The superintendent can help by showing no favoritism among board members, keeping the board completely informed, distributing timely and relevant information, supporting board decisions, being open and honest with the board and presenting alternatives objectively.

Dealing With Conflict

When conflict inevitably arises, avoid getting visibly angry. Do not argue with the board in public. If necessary, ask the board to table an issue. Remember that nobody is perfect, and everybody makes mistakes. The key is to recognize them, apologize for them, and move on.

Avoid putting board members on the defensive. Recognize that asking for more information is one way to approach an issue without escalating conflict. Do not hold grudges, as your continued work with the board directly affects the students in your district.

Craig Bangston is the superintendent of Grayson County Schools, P.O. Box 4009, Leitchfield, Ky. 42755-4009.