Board-Savvy Superintendent

Converting Board Meetings Into Quality Time

by NICHOLAS D. CARUSO JR.

How many times does your board hold a “regular” meeting? Once a month? Twice a month? For the sake of argument, let’s say 2 times a month.

How long do those two meetings typically last — two hours? Four hours? Let’s say three hours on average. That adds up to 72 hours of meeting time over the year. In the overall scheme of things, that is not really a lot of time. Of course, school boards often spend many more hours leading their districts, but how much of that time is related to the real work of the board?

I would argue that the time spent at your regular monthly or bimonthly meeting should be the most important work of the school district. How many of those 72 hours a year are spent on education?


Talking Time
I ask this question almost every time I consult with a board of education. Most times when I do, the answer is unanimous — not enough!

Board members understand they should talk about education, but wonder how to find the time to focus more on education issues. As superintendent, you struggle with trying to keep board members informed on data and trends, without promoting micromanaging. Boards often ask how to make their meetings more efficient. Challenge them to make their meetings more effective. Efficient boards get out at a reasonable time. Effective boards actually get something done.

What does your agenda look like? How much time is spent on student achievement and examining data to see trends? How much discussion takes place on how instruction and assessment affects student performance? How much time is spent helping the board understand the work of the district, and how it all fits into the district vision? How much time is spent defining the vision? When your board discusses a policy issue, do board members talk about the educational impact of the policies, or are they more focused on the wording?

Defining Essentials
When boards of education discuss administrative or operational issues, they are not doing the most important work of the board. I often see them making decisions that many others could do, if given the proper authority. Sometimes district staff members already have the authority either by state law or board policy, but it is easier to just keep putting those decisions on the board agenda the way they have done it since 1857.

I once saw a school board spend 40 minutes approving field trips, but later in the meeting they only spent 10 minutes discussing the adoption of a 21st-century classroom for their high school.

The board leads through establishing policy, setting goals and holding the system accountable for achieving those goals. Many boards do not establish goals, and when they do, they rarely follow up on a regular basis to see how progress is unfolding. Every agenda should include a report on the status of the district goals. Agenda topics should be linked to goals wherever possible.

Boards of education should be leaders of change, but most boards never talk about what change requires. Is there a consensus on the need for change? Who will resist the change? What tools will our teachers need to succeed with our new initiatives? What will the community reaction be, and how do we work to bring everyone on board?

Board members can have a major impact on all of these things with the superintendent’s help. If you don’t ask these questions of your board members, they may not discuss them.

Four Notions
So what are the things a superintendent can do to help the board spend time on this important work?

•  Institutionalize the topic of education into board meetings.The superintendent, working with the board chair, should craft agendas that focus on learning. The superintendent also should recommend areas where decision making can be redirected to administration with the proper guidance from policy.

•  Teach your board how leadership works in your district. Explain the idea of distributed leadership and how everyone in the district has leadership responsibilities, and the board can perform at a higher level if they don’t try and do everyone else’s job.

•  Certify the board’s ownership. Make sure the board has full ownership of district goals, and report regularly on the progress of those goals. Make this an important focus of your meetings. Link agenda items to your goals so the reference is clear. Encourage the board to look at this when they evaluate themselves. If they are not spending any time on their goals, they need to think about the ramifications of that.

•  Warm up the climate. Create a climate for improving student achievement. Make this the mantra: Are we doing everything we need to do in order to improve student achievement?

When board meetings focus on the performance of the students rather than the operations of the district, your work as superintendent will be more satisfying, and your board will feel much better about the work it does, as well.

Nick Caruso is senior staff associate for field services and coordinator of technology with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education in Wethersfield, Conn. E-mail: ncaruso@cabe.org