Getting Clear About Directions by Tapping Into School Board Values

Jack Dale, Superintendent, Fairfax County Public Schools

Jack Dale, Superintendent, Fairfax County Public Schools

Jack Dale

In addition to following “Some Suggestions for Survival,” there are some strategies I use to help the school board reach decisions and provide clear direction to the district leadership team.

I believe that decisions/directions are rarely right or wrong. When board members, and even leadership team members, suggest different options to solving an issue, they are really reflecting the different values they hold dear. Recently my school board faced difficult boundary issues. (These are always difficult for a board as there are a variety of solutions and each has very vocal community support.) As we analyzed and debated the pros and cons of different boundary solutions, I tried to help the board articulate the competing values behind the various options.

One board member was adamant that one option was the best solution, while another forcefully disagreed. Tempers could have flared, but I worked with each board member to restate their position in terms of the underlying values that drove the arguments. One board member valued keeping neighborhoods intact, while another wanted balanced demographics at all schools in the study. These two sets of values yielded very different boundary solutions. Neither was right nor wrong, just a reflection of an individual board member’s values and beliefs.

Another example of values and beliefs clashing is in budget deliberations. One board member lobbied for more elementary foreign language, while another argued for more full-day kindergarten, and a third wanted salary increases. Each was advocating that a higher priority be placed on learning foreign languages, providing early childhood education or fairly compensating employees (respectively). None of the board members was right or wrong, but merely reflected different, and sometimes deeply held, values and beliefs.

Much advance work can be done to avoid heated debate about solutions to complex and volatile issues. I have found that forcing the school board to articulate values/beliefs, develop criteria and ranking the criteria is crucial to guiding their decision making. I take board members through a four-step process so decisions can be made in a more thoughtful, logical and rational manner, and thereby reducing emotional reactions.

First, the entire school board brainstorms the criteria, based on their own values and beliefs, against which they will make final decisions. Second, we refine the brainstormed list into cogent words or phrases that are clear to all members. Third, board members individually weight each criterion on a 10 point scale, with 10 being the highest. Finally, board members reach consensus on the weightings.

Once you have the rank-ordered and weighted criteria for decision making, the school board and the public can debate the relative ranks and weights of each criterion. This debate is much less contentious and allows people to focus on their core values and beliefs, explore their similarities and differences, and do so in a less contentious atmosphere.

When staff members prepare final recommendations to the board as a whole, the various options can be rated against the weighted criteria to reach a more logical and rational decision, based on the core values and beliefs of the school board. As I have used this process, board members recognize the importance of weighting each criterion in the decision making process. By doing so, the board recognizes that the clarity of purpose is conveyed in direction to the superintendent and staff.