Board-Savvy Superintendent

Using Meeting Agendas To Push Achievement

by Nicholas D. Caruso Jr.

I

often give a quiz when I talk to school boards and superintendents about the role of the board and using meetings wisely.

First, I describe a board of education meeting I observed in a suburban school district where three of the numerous items on a 45-page agenda included:

1. Discussion and approval of 7 field trips;

2. Discussion of a school bus issue (the driver had already been fired); and

3. Presentation and approval of two 21st-century classrooms at the high school (one of the most exciting things I had heard in 25 years in the business).


Caruso.jpgNicholas D. Caruso


The quiz asks each test-taker to match the agenda item with how much time another board spent on each. The options are 40 minutes, 20 minutes and 10 minutes.

Time on Target
I’m sure it would not surprise you that no one guesses wrong on No. 3. They sometimes get one and two mixed, but not often. (For the record, field trips — 40 minutes, school bus — 20 minutes, 21st-century classroom — 10 minutes). Inherently, board members know this is normal behavior, even when they will admit it doesn’t seem right.

The point is, if we are ever to succeed in preparing our students for the world, we need to focus on improving learning, and boards of education need to focus their attention on that important work at their meetings. I firmly believe that time spent on field trips, school busses or snow blowers (my own board once fought over what horsepower the new snow blowers should be) is time off task.

The meeting agenda is the first place you can make a difference in raising student achievement. The more time the board spends on issues related to student achievement means a greater likelihood the district will focus on learning as the most important activity of that district.

Keep the agenda free of administrative issues by focusing on student-related matters. Because the superintendent usually prepares the draft agenda, you have a great deal of opportunity when you bring forward those issues on the agenda related to learning.

You also can often present information in a way that reports the information to the board rather than asking it for permission. For that to work properly, however, the board needs to focus on cementing its ideas into clearly defined direction for you and staff.

The district policy manual is the place to start. Lots of opportunities exist for the board to lead through policy rather than through directives. After the infamous 40-minute field trip discussion, I spoke to the board chair and we resolved how it would be appropriate for the board to pass a policy giving direction on field trips to the staff — locations, costs, age-appropriateness, safety, educational value, etc. — and then let administration make the call based on the policy.

The superintendent should encourage the board to challenge every item on the agenda: Does it absolutely have to be there or are there ways that policies can be revised to let administrators make the decision? Not only does this free up time for the board to explore more important issues, but it tends to ensure more consistency in decisions by administration when the policies are clearly defined.

Encourage the board to do a work session on meeting efficiencies, perhaps as part of a board retreat. I often work with boards in this area, and we talk about what the board spends meeting time on and how it could be done more effectively and efficiently.

Another important way for board members to focus on their role as leaders is to get them to focus on goals. This does not just mean setting goals once a year but actually placing a discussion of goals on every agenda and relating each agenda item to whatever goals are related.

During the board’s annual self-evaluation, it is important to include discussion of how much board time is spent on issues related to board goals compared to issues of the moment. Some electronic agenda programs actually allow you to relate agenda items to each district goal so you can get a report of actual time spent on goal-related issues.

Cutting Busywork
Encourage the board to have educational issues on each agenda. Curricula, brain research, different teaching styles, professional development — topics the board members need to understand to do their job effectively should be a regular part of a meeting.

Use a consent agenda to minimize the busywork, and leave time for the important discussions. The vital thing is to remember that board members have worked all day and they come to the board table as volunteers. Make the time valuable by being brief and relevant. While a three-hour curriculum presentation might really give the board a lot of information, many will be lost after 15 minutes.

Lastly, keep the board focused on the issues that need resolution, rather than the solutions. A school board that reaches consensus on what needs to be fixed will be more effective than one that fights over solutions when it has yet to identify what needs fixing.

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