School Board Gets a Lesson in How to do Its Job

NEWPORT, VT - The North Country Union High School Board and school administrators went “back to school” Tuesday night as the monthly meeting focused on the school board's role as it relates to the community, students, administration and each other in their role managing an educational institution.Harry Frank, Associate Director of Board Development for the Vermont School Boards Association, presented a series of topics that define the role and goals of a high school board. “You serve as a trustee for the community and all of the students in the community,” he stated. “As members, you need to know what is your focus and how your individual decisions affect your goals.... Why do we have school boards and why are you specifically serving on this board? This is important because your personal vision and goals affect your role on the board,” Frank said.Several board members offered reasons why they personally joined the school board, including Richard Nelson of Derby who recently joined the board due to a vacancy. Long-time board member Richard Cartee of Newport was also appointed to fill a vacancy. Maggie Griffith of Newport, a former educator and administrator, said discipline issues prompted her to run for the board. Members were concerned that some towns wouldn't have representation on the board because of vacancies.“In many respects, you're the backbone of the community,” said Frank. “Certainly there are historical reasons to have school boards. Our mission as a community is to educate every child.” Frank pointed out that while the State of Vermont has hundreds of school boards – elementary, junior high school and high school, as well as for institutions of higher education – the city of Los Angeles, CA, with hundreds of thousands of students, has one school board. “You have a very unique opportunity to interact with parents and students in your community. The school board in Los Angeles doesn't have that level of closeness to the students and their parents that you have here,” said Frank.“Being a school board member is a very complex undertaking and requires skill and expertise, but you don't have to have the expertise,” observed Frank. “Your focus should be on setting policies, goals, a mission for the school. This is our job, to set goals and hold the leadership team to a high standard, but let them do their job.” Frank emphasized that board members should not loose their objectivity by taking a stance that can influence the outcome of a policy. “Let the administration run the system as they provide the expertise necessary to operate the school,” he states, “You are like a board of appeals, so, if you get too involved in an issue, you may loose your objectivity. Your responsibility is quite broad and your focus should be on your mission statement.”Frank presented the board with a handout articulating several goals for which the school board is responsible. The first is to educate and engage the community in support of the schools. But engaging the community is not the same as advocating for a parent's or student's particular situation, Frank emphasized. Board member Peter Moskovites agreed that while the school board did discuss a lot of individual issues rather than policy issues at the board meetings, he encouraged parents or students with an issue to use the chain of command: contact the teacher or school administrator first and then, if the issue isn't resolved, get the superintendent or school board member involved. “The chain of command establishes a structure to address issues,” Moskovites stated. “But sometimes you may have to intervene and bring the issue before the board.”A second goal is to create a vision of a clear mission for the faculty and administration as well as measurable goals to judge performance. “Once you have established this vision, it's the board's responsibility to ensure the administration and staff work to achieve the intended outcome,” said Frank.Budgeting is an important goal for the board and Frank recommended budgets be developed in the context of its vision for the future. “Many times we develop budgets based on the past, but if your mission and goals change, you should create your budget focusing on what you want to accomplish,” Frank said.The concept of “zero based budgeting” is familiar to Derby board member Arnie Amaliksen, who started advocating years ago for the school to adopt this budgeting process. In the event the school board sets new goals, such as increasing the use of technology in the classrooms, the proposed budget must reflect these goals. That can be achieved more easily by starting the budget process from scratch, according to Frank.Monitoring outcomes is another board responsibility. Once goals are established, there should be a way to measure performance. This led to a discussion by the board and administrators as to what tools and information can be used to measure outcomes. Examples included graduation and drop-out rates, test scores, and the number of students who enroll into post-secondary education, including technical schools and training programs. Newport board member Richard Cartee noted that in addition to data collected by the school, board members can also provide feedback from their constituents who communicate with him about their children's post secondary education plans. Frank agreed that a goal can be measured in different ways.Legal and ethical responsibilities are a challenge for any school board because they deal with sensitive issues, from student discipline to negotiating contracts. Frank advised the board to avoid situations where there may be a perception of a conflict of interest. “Perception defines our view of the world; people need to accept the validity of a board's decision and that means you have to be careful to not undercut a decision, “ Frank stated. “ You can disagree with a decision but you can't ethically undercut it. Your role on the board is to disagree but within the boundaries of executive session.”Frank acknowledges that a board member can share their point of view publicly and speak to the substance of the conversation, but avoid issues of confidentiality. He strongly emphasized that executive session discussions should be kept confidential because to do otherwise can destroy trust between board members. “A person's words should not be used against them,” said Frank. “The content of the discussions should not be raised outside of the executive session.”Entering executive sessions is a legal issue that must be carried out properly as according to the law. Frank said the board has limited reasons to enter executive session and must articulate in full the reasons for asking the public to leave the room.Cartee observed, “The problem is when issues are raised in executive session that shouldn't be, it leads to a violation of the executive privilege. It has been used in ways that it is not designed to be used.”The board concluded the presentation by dividing into teams with each group taking one of the goals in the mission statement and determining how to quantify measurable outcomes. This will enable the board to consider whether the specific goals in the mission statement are appropriate and measurable.