by Laurie Kimbrel
An effective school board collectively understands that their communication sets the tone for communication and culture in the district and community. The board members are the elected educational leaders in the community and therefore, others take their cues from the board. Once a school board has determined that they share a common vision, also known as unity of purpose, their job is to communicate that vision articulately and with consistency. Even if the vision statement is a few sentences and has a locally appropriate tone, it should boil down to the absolute fact that schools exist to cause learning for students. Schools do not exist for the comfort or convenience of adults and therefore, a good statement of vision or purpose is student centered.
Problems occur when a rogue board member or two agree with the vision or purpose statement in a meeting of the board but then contradict it during subsequent small group or individual conversations. This obviously causes division among the board because these types of contradictions almost always make it back to the larger group, often through the superintendent. It is appropriate, and healthy to debate how we will achieve our purpose, but it creates or contributes to a toxic culture when board members disagree with the purpose of the organization to which they previously publically agreed.
When individual board members publicly contradict the board’s stated purpose, it is the role of the board president to gently remind the member that he or she agreed to the stated purpose, and many cases, signed off on the stated purpose, in a public meeting of the board. Most often, board members are well-intentioned and good- hearted individuals who don’t understand the problems with these types of statements or even that they made such a statement.
There are many examples of board members who either intentionally or not, make a statement that goes against the grain of the board’s stated purpose. Suppose a board member has an individual conversation with a teacher who complains that some students are too difficult to teach. If the board member responds that he or she agrees and that some students are just “slackers” that “don’t want” to learn, then he or she was now just made a statement that directly contradicts that board’s stated purpose that we ensure that all students learn (not just the ones for whom it comes easy). Similarly, the board member who is in conversation with parents who are complaining that “those students” should not be in the same class with “my child” because it makes it too difficult for “my child” to learn. If the board member agrees that some students can’t or won’t learn, then again, he or she has directly contradicted the board’s vision of all students learning at high levels.
Again, it is the role of the board president to have a conversation with a board member who communicates in this manner. There are really two options to proceed. The board can re-visit its purpose and alter it to accommodate dissenting views or the individual board members can monitor their own communication so that they do not publically disagree with the previously agreed to direction of the board. If this sort of communication continues, it erodes the effectiveness of the board and the ability of the administration to lead the district.
Effective school boards operate openly, with trust and integrity. Board members should express their opinions, openly and without reserve at the board table, during public open meetings. These meetings are the opportunity to share opinions and to shape the direction of the district. All too often, I have seen board members agree at the meeting and then have conversations later that contradict their public statements. The subsequent erosion of trust with staff and the community is very difficult to repair.
In conclusion, the superintendent and board president must regularly include discussion of organizational purpose on public board meeting agendas so that all members, as well as the community, have an opportunity to weigh in and created a purpose that truly everyone can stand behind, both in board meetings and in conversations after the fact.