Advancing Through Board Work Sessions

Type: Article
Topics: Board Relations, School Administrator Magazine

March 01, 2018

Board-Savvy Superintendent

THE NINE MILE FALLS, Wash., school board gets together several times throughout the year for work sessions. The members don’t call it a retreat. Rather, they refer to it as a board advance.

I thought the nomenclature change made a lot of sense the way my colleague, Brian Talbott, the superintendent in Nine Mile Falls, explained it. As superintendents, we want to work with our school board members to move our districts ahead. We want to further the board’s work and advance toward our district’s mission.

As we prepared for our district’s first board advance, I considered it important for all who would be involved to clearly understand the event’s purpose. I wanted to ensure the agenda met the expectations of all who would be involved.

Three Considerations

When planning any board work session (whatever name you might give it), consider these aspects:

  1. Develop an inclusive agenda to support buy-in from each board member.
    Solicit input from all members of the team. In the Freeman School District in Rockford, Wash., the board chair and superintendent create a draft agenda that combines team-building strategies, reasons for celebration and opportunities for growth.

    The draft agenda is shared with other board members for their suggestions.

    Having each board member join in the discussion and offer her or his insights and suggestions empowers each team member in “owning” the final agenda. Then we assign a designated amount of time to each agenda item to ensure items in the beginning do not monopolize the advance’s time frame.

  2. Give serious thought to the event’s venue.
    Both the Freeman and Nine Mile Falls districts have held some board advances in district facilities, but we also have hosted these sessions off-site at a local business, the home of a board member or superintendent or another education setting.

    Being able to hold a work session at a special site can serve the agenda. For instance, we went to Spokane Valley Technical Skills Center to see the facilities and invited several business leaders to join us. This information-gathering tour supported initiatives we were focused on.

    The date, time and location must be published ahead of time as school board work sessions are subject to states’ open meetings laws. While neither of us have had a community member join a board advance, you should be prepared for such a possibility.
  3. Focus your session on “kaizen” (a Japanese term for continuous improvement).
    When a school district focuses on sustained growth over time, it sends a message to the students, staff, parents and community members that all of us can and must keep getting better at what we do — which is serving our students. Staying focused on continuous improvement allows for opportunities such as professional development offerings and training focused on our district’s “guiding question.” Recent advance work sessions in Freeman focused on school facilities, full-day kindergarten and special education.

    Opportunities exist for inviting leadership team members, such as a principal, director or school district business partner to a board work session. Their expertise can be beneficial in helping the school board and superintendent understand particular topics, and they offer valuable information that leads to better decision making at the school board level.

    Conversations on where we are, where we wish to be and how we get there drive the work in a board advance and help focus the school district on fulfilling its important objectives.
Mission Fulfillment

The benefits of this approach extend beyond keeping the governance team moving forward and perhaps changing mindsets. Conversations go past this month’s board business by projecting a belief the school board should always be looking ahead toward fulfilling its mission.

A board advance enables us to build positive relationships as a team, concentrate on one or more topics deeply and provide a foundation for continuous improvement.

RANDY RUSSELL is superintendent of the Freeman School District in Rockford, Wash.


Randy Russell, superintendent, Freeman School District (Wash.)