by Laurie Kimbrel
Public participation in local government is the foundation of American democracy. Nowhere is this more evident than in our public schools, where elected boards of education work together to ensure that systems and policies are in place to support student learning. Since the decisions of a school board impact our children, the stakes are high, and it’s essential that voters take the time to be informed before they cast their ballots.
The Role of the Board
Although school board meetings sometimes look structured and routine to the outside observer, the board makes a number of very important decisions about how our schools operate. It’s important to remember that school districts are governed collectively by boards, rather than by individual trustees. Because the board is a governmental body, it can only take action by majority vote at a public meeting. According to the American Associations of School Boards, there are some characteristics that are common to good school boards no matter where they are in the country:
- Good boards set a vision for their districts based on input from stakeholders. The vision is an aspirational statement of what should be true for all students. Decisions of the board should be made in light of the mission.
- Good school boards set policy for the district and listen to a variety of stakeholder groups as a part of the policy-setting process.
- Good school boards understand the budget and ensure that it responsibly supports the mission.
- Good boards attempt to reach decisions that all members can support.
- Good school boards make every effort to operate openly by encouraging public attendance at their meetings and keeping constituents informed of the district’s progress.
- Good boards are efficient and have protocols and procedures for how they will operate as a team.
- Good boards know that they are in the business of education. They talk about education, they study the needs of students, and they are familiar with current educational research.
- Good school boards know the difference between governance (which is the board’s job) and management (which is the administration’s job), and place a high priority on respecting that difference.
What to Look for in an Individual Trustee
Good school trustees can come from all walks of life. The ability to work together as a team is not determined by age, race, occupation, income, or social standing. Both the California School Boards Association and the American School Boards Association have identified the characteristics of effective trustees. These qualities may be helpful to keep in mind as you are researching the views and experiences of the candidates. An effective individual trustee:
- Has the proven ability to work as a member of a team, including keeping an open mind and engaging in give-and-take to arrive at a group consensus.
- Keeps learning and achievement of all students as their primary focus.
- Takes the time necessary to become informed and do the homework required to actively take part in effective school board meetings.
- Recognizes and respects differences of perspective and style on the board and among staff, students, parents, and the community.
- Acts with dignity and understands the implications of demeanor and behavior.
- Keeps confidential matters confidential.
- Participates in professional development and commits the time and energy necessary to be an informed leader.
Effective trustees are often those who have proved successful in their particular vocations or avocations, and who have demonstrated a genuine concern for the needs of students and community improvement. Schools and students need trustees who believe unequivocally in the value of public education. Trustees must be dedicated to serving and teaching each and every student.
As with all elections, we should become informed voters and make our choices wisely. After all, our new trustees will have the awesome responsibility of looking out for the best interests of our students, and our students deserve the very best.