Conventional wisdom and years of best practice knowledge regarding governance theory and behavior say that Boards should operate at the thirty thousand foot level and provide directional guidance to the superintendent. The superintendent then manages the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly operational details of the district to ensure that the organization achieves the goals and direction set by the Board. While there are many different organizational models through which this can be accomplished e.g. goal setting, management by objective, continuous improvement efforts, strategic planning; the key belief is that the Board “should not get down in the weeds.” Operational details and management work is the responsibility of the administration, not the Board. This paradigm seems to be making a major shift when one looks at the behavior of today’s boards.
Many current board members began their service as board members during an era of significant distrust in government and institutions, of special interest groups playing a major role in decision-making through advocacy efforts, and of wide variances and deep divisions within the community’s expectations for public education. These social dynamics have influenced the motivation behind individuals running for office and the expectations that board members have regarding their roles and responsibilities – thus an era of more activist board members.
It was not uncommon, years ago that board members ran for office as a way of giving back to and working for the common good of their communities. Board members certainly had their individual beliefs and often had disagreements with each other regarding issues and decisions, but common ground often resided in the belief that public schools serve a higher purpose.
Given the challenges facing education – expanding student needs, decreasing resources, variances in expectations and desires, and the splintering of communities into special interests, today’s board members have very challenging jobs with little widespread support. Many individuals are encouraged to run for a board to promote their advocacy for a given cause or interest. They are often elected to represent a part of the community – defined geographically, ethnically, or programmatically. Often one of the driving forces is that they represent the interests of the people who help them get elected, not necessarily the interests of all children in the school system.
While these factors are evident at all levels of local, state, and national politics, they appear to be changing the nature of what it means to be an elected school board member. Advocacy and representation play a much bigger role in decision-making. Transparency and the speed of communication mean that the entire community is more fully aware of the decisions being made and have the tools necessary to communicate their support or criticism with immediacy and breadth.
Numerous board members see their role in this environment as the advocate or agent for the group(s) they represent. They want to ensure issues are being addressed and problems are being solved. They are often not content to just believe that the administration will handle these matters. They require follow-up and information so that they can respond directly to their constituents.
While superintendents may agree or disagree with this direction, the era of a clear division between the Board’s role and the administration’s role seems to be waning. Superintendents will need to create new partnerships with board members and new ways of communicating regarding the work being done and the decisions being made. Today’s savvy superintendents are finding ways to tap this interest and desire on the part of board members, rather than fighting over whether or not board members are crossing the line. While not clearly defined yet, a new model of effective board/superintendent governance needs to emerge as board members continue to push the envelope on what is considered board work.