Committee influence on school board policy, curriculum standards

As interest rises across the country in local government meetings, the Forest Lake Times wants to help its readers know how best to engage with local government. The following is an educational article about how the school board functions, both within the district and with state and federal government. This is the first in a two-part educational series about local government.

Components of the school district

Across the nation, those leading school districts have different jobs. Some are elected, some are appointed. School boards are made up of elected officials. In Minnesota, those individuals work with the board-chosen district superintendent for decisions regarding all school levels from district-run prekindergarten programs to high school. 

In Minnesota, the school board is a governing entity that sets and oversees the policies the school district must adhere to and sets educational standards passed down from the Minnesota Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Education. While some education standards are approved at the federal level, the state of Minnesota sets its standards requirements, and the district is required to implement those standards. 

Such standards include the content being taught at each grade level. For example, Superintendent Steve Massey said if the state changes math standards to require eighth graders to learn algebra, instead of learning algebra in ninth grade, the school district will adjust eighth and ninth grade curriculums to meet those standards. 

Additionally, there are federal regulations, like the Every Student Succeeds Act, that the state and school districts must adhere to. 

Temporary policy decisions, like mask mandates, can come from the federal government, the state government, or put forth by the school board. 

The board does not oversee day-to-day operations; that is the superintendent’s function for the board. 

“The school board’s responsibility is very much to set the policies with which the school district operates,” said Jeff Peterson, Forest Lake Area Schools board president.

In Forest Lake, Massey oversees the school district’s everyday operations at each school in the district.

“The superintendent is, technically, he works for the school board. … The superintendent answers to the school board, but everybody else answers to the superintendent,” Peterson said. 

Massey corresponds with the directors of the committees, like policy and curriculum, and each school in the district via the principals and faculty members. He will relay information and updates to the board when needed. 

“My job is to keep the board informed and prepared to do their work. … It’s my job to keep them apprised of what’s going on in the district, keep them well informed,” Massey said. 

Committee’s influence

Committees are typical for most school boards, as there are several topics committees are responsible for. Committees tackle specific topics and offer recommendations and updated guidance to the school board for approval. The Forest Lake Area School Board has six committees: buildings and grounds; communications; curriculum, instruction and equity; finance; policy and staff welfare. Those committees are composed of two board members on each, along with community members and faculty from the schools. There is a new cycle of committee members at the start of each school year in September. Community and staff members that are interested in participating on committees can reach out to Massey and express an interest for admittance onto a committee.  

“Everything we do is kind of governed by policy, for the most part,” board member Rob Rapheal said. 

The policy committee reviews current policies or discusses implementing new policies as needed, according to Peterson. After policies are reviewed by the committee, they are brought before the board for approval. Before anything is approved, two board meetings are required: one for initial review and discussion, the second for final approval or denial.

The first reading of a new policy or policy adaptation allows the board members to ask questions and take time to think before approving or opposing a new policy after the second reading, a month later. 

Peterson said there are some policies that are reviewed annually, like sexual harassment, but committees also address issues as they arise, like cellphone usage for students. 

“I think sometimes people underestimate how much [of] what comes before the board has been gone through,” said Rapheal, emphasizing how the committees are a place where the majority of discussions take place rather than the formal school board meetings. 

“The board is really the tip of a very large iceberg, and that iceberg is, completely, the thing that’s driving these ideas,” Rapheal said.

Ideas and discussions at committee meetings converge through Massey to relay to the board, since he has weekly meetings with the six directors of the committees. 

This school year Rapheal is on the curriculum committee. Additionally, he sees his position on the board as crucial to support students’ right to a good education, saying, “I need to be the number one advocate for kids.”

Curriculum standards are not generated at the school board level. Instead, curriculum guidelines are provided by the Minnesota Department of Education, such as credit and course content requirements that the school district has to meet, according to Massey. 

“We’ve got school board policies that drive how we meet standards and how curriculum is brought into place for kids,” said Massey, regarding the process of developing curriculum with assistance from teachers and principals to meet state and federal standards. 

Massey explained that the team of learning professionals will vet and research appropriate materials like textbooks, informational videos or other learning tools that will be the most useful in teaching regulated course content. 

Rapheal summarized the first curriculum meeting this year, which proposed the idea to reevaluate the time frame of how kindergarten students learn the letters in the alphabet. He described how board members listen to the professional opinions of the district educators to enact changes in day-to-day curriculum instruction that adhere to the broader goals of the strategic plan. 

“[The board has] more a role of understanding what the people [teachers] who really know this stuff, what they’re proposing, and making sure it kind of fits in with the large structure of the school district,” Rapheal said. 

How to get involved

If you’re interested in engaging the school district about decision making, you can volunteer for and attend events at the schools, support a students’ education outside of the classroom, join the school’s Parent Teacher Organization or Association or attend school board meetings.

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