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Games School Boards Play 

BY DAVID E. LEE

I recently sat in the audience at a school board meeting where a large, unruly crowd had gathered to persuade board members to name the high school football stadium after a former, long-standing coach. When confronted by the raucous community group, the board buckled under pressure and turned to the superintendent for help.

The superintendent said no policy was in place about naming athletic facilities for a coach, and he advised this could open Pandora’s box. He recommended the board develop a policy before taking action. One board member angrily pointed his finger at the superintendent, saying, “We’re the board, and we can do anything we want to. All we need is a majority vote, and I say, ‘Let’s have a vote on this.’”

That’s what the board did, naming that stadium after the former coach. The crowd cheered and told the board members who voted in favor how wonderful they were.

The loud-mouth board member was right — the board can do whatever it wants, as long as it is legal. And therein lies the problem facing school systems right now. Dysfunctional boards make great leadership impossible.

Negative Behaviors
If you want to understand what’s happening in classrooms today, you have to find out what’s going on at the top. That’s what we did in our research on school board behaviors in school systems across the United States. Our study concluded that negative board behaviors directly affect student achievement.

We assembled a team of researchers that personally viewed board meetings in action. Over a six-month period, we observed 150 board meetings to determine the differences in board member behaviors in high- and low-performing school systems.

We started with meetings of school boards that were available as district webcasts, but we quickly discovered only the productive boards put their meetings online for the world to see. So we set out to personally visit board meetings in systems that were considered low-functioning by their state education agencies.

You won’t find these meetings online, and I understand why. What we saw gave us a clear picture of why many of our struggling districts never get any better.

The Council of the Great City Schools recently reported the average tenure of an urban superintendent runs a little beyond three years. Those three years must seem like an eternity in places where we saw no evidence of collaboration, teamwork or trust.

Clear Evidence
School boards have been virtually overlooked by sweeping accountability movements. Much is expected of of teachers and administrators, but those who can most affect the quality of an entire school system the most seem to have been forgotten. Unfortunately, some boards become the barriers to meaningful school change.

The visual evidence we collected indicates school boards in low-performing districts have less order and spend little or no time on student achievement matters. Board members do not listen attentively unless the topic is of personal interest, with members talking over each other and audience members chatting constantly.

If teachers allowed their students to behave this way in a classroom, the students would be disciplined. We witnessed board members’ temper tantrums, rude and contemptuous behavior, political gaming and cutting remarks toward their superintendent. They allowed personalities and petty differences to get in the way of real results.

Meetings seem to go on forever. Constant bickering in board meetings almost guarantees no direction for the district. These boards perpetuate the status quo and, while everything changes, nothing really changes.

In the high-performing school districts we watched in action, just the opposite seems true. One wishes their behaviors could be duplicated.

A Personal Breakdown
Having been both a superintendent and a school board member in different districts, I can see where all of this breaks down. I thought I could make a big impact because I had all of this professional experience. So I ran for the school board and got elected for a six-year term.

My first mistake was trying to second-guess the superintendent. I finally quit that detrimental behavior, then tried to rally my fellow board members to work as a team and set some benchmarks for our district. Three didn’t know what a benchmark was and saw no need to waste time doing that. After all, we had running tracks to resurface and gyms to build. And the special-interest groups were politicking for everything under the sun.

Communities must carefully select quality candidates to serve on school boards. Unfortunately, many of our great leaders aren’t willing to serve due to constant political pressure.

The position of school board member may be the most important elected or appointed position in a community. Just as we must get the right teachers on the bus, the same may be true for boards of education. Only the communities can demand it.

As a superintendent, I once had a renegade board member who was about 25 years old. I counseled him over and over about his negative behavior, and he told me one night after a heated board meeting, “Dr. Lee, I like you. I don’t have a problem with you, but if I don’t act this way, I won’t get re-elected. My community likes for me to act this way.” What could I say?

I once asked five veteran board members from an urban district, while conducting their annual retreat, if they knew what constituted a good board member. An elderly gentleman raised his hand and said, “Yep, somebody who can get two other members to think like I do.” Is this your board?

David Lee is an associate professor of educational leadership at University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Miss. E-mail: david.e.lee@usm.edu

 

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