Having been involved in many school board campaigns (including one this month), I’d like to offer a few suggestions to those who were elected. People who voted and care about public schools also might find these recommendations helpful.
Before advice: thanks. Elections can be exhilarating or disappointing. Putting yourself “out there” and asking for support isn’t easy for many of us. So thanks to all those who ran, whether you won or lost.
Now, seven suggestions:
— Encourage your district to establish clear goals focused on students. This sounds obvious. But in 50 years of dealing with schools and districts, I’ve found widespread reluctance to establish clear, measurable goals. Too many educators have convinced themselves that they can’t or shouldn’t be held accountable for attaining or achieving specific goals.
These goals may involve progress, and may or may not involve standardized tests. High schools might, for example, set a goal of increasing by X percent the number of students who earn free college credit by taking courses taught by high school faculty or via PSEO. Elementary schools might set a goal of a certain percentage of students being able to read at what outside authorities call grade level.
— This leads to a terrific publication produced by the national Government Finance Officers Association. It’s called “Best Practices in School Budgeting.” A free download is available here: https://bit.ly/3qdnaqB. To purchase a printed copy, go to the e-store at https://www.gfoa.org/. The brief, immensely practical report includes these observations: “Clear goals for student achievement should guide how resources are allocated. Tracking progress or making tough budget decisions to prioritize programs and strategies is not possible without specific goals.” I wish every school board member would read and use this booklet.
— Insist on periodic surveys of students, families, educators and community members. What do they think is going well? What do they think needs to be top priority for improvements? Of course everyone won’t agree. But well-designed and carried out surveys can be immensely valuable for helping board members establish priorities.
— Insist on periodic outside financial reviews. State law requires this. But make sure your school and/or district has auditors doing this who are willing to identify problems — and have the experience. Some schools and districts have learned, to their dismay, that thousands of dollars are missing or have been spent in inappropriate ways.
— Stay alert for continuing “change orders” in facilities. St. Paul Board members approved facilities changes that were more than $170 million over their original budget. They did not realize the program was so far over budget until the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote about it.
— Hold periodic public meetings on key issues, and invite experts, students and families to share information. It’s critical that school boards have access to a variety of information. The administration should not be able to filter information that school board members receive. This is not to be a blanket condemnation of administrators. But wise school board members will not only be open to, but encourage others to share their insights and knowledge.
— Finally, remember that you are first and foremost a representative of the people who elected you, rather than a representative of the district. Many school board members are pressured to defend the district. Sometimes that’s appropriate when, for example, inaccurate information is being distributed by community members. But wise board members remember that they have been elected to represent community members — NOT district administrators.
Successful school boards follow these seven suggestions. Thanks again for running. I hope these recommendations are useful. — Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org or @JoeNathan9249 on Twitter.