by Laurie Kimbrel, Ed.D.
According to the California School Board Association, the purpose of a locally elected board of trustees is to ensure that school districts are responsive to the values, beliefs and priorities of their communities. School boards are empowered to carry out several important oversight and direction setting functions but in order to be truly effective; a board must have a unity of purpose.
Unity of purpose of the governance team (which includes both the board members and superintendent) include a common focus, agreement on priority goals, and shared values about students, the district and public education that transcend individual differences and fulfill a greater purpose. A unity of purpose exists when the commitment to achieving these goals becomes the guiding principle of the board members and superintendent.
Achieving unity of purpose requires a deliberate, thoughtful process. After all, board members are elected as individuals, but govern as a group. Any action or direction to the superintendent requires a vote of the majority of the board and so an individual with an idea not shared by the group will not get very far.
Oftentimes, unity of purpose is expressed as a mission statement. For example, the mission statement at Tamalpais Union High School District where I served for seven years as a superintendent was developed by the board in collaboration with the community and served as an ongoing reminder of the purpose of the district.
“The Tamalpais Union High School District is dedicated to the development of creative, passionate, and self-motivated learners. Upon graduation, students will be prepared for engaged citizenship and able to contribute individually and collaboratively in order to address the challenges of a dynamic and diverse world. To these ends, all students will demonstrate mastery of core competencies and will be offered meaningful learning experiences to enable them to access and critically analyze information, pose substantive questions, and communicate effectively.”
Although this statement is rather long, it is student focused and can be distilled to two essential components:
- All students will learn at high levels
- All students will graduate ready for life in the twenty first century
This mission was annually reviewed by the board and included in the unity of purpose section in the governance handbook. In fact, the board updated the entire handbook, which also included protocols and norms, annually and each member of the governance team signed a cover page indicating their agreement to adhere to the agreements within.
Having an articulated unity of purpose is of great benefit when difficult decisions need to be made. An agreement about the purpose of a governance team and school district transcends political leanings and personal biases. The role of the superintendent is to continuously ask the question, “will this action or decision move us closer to or farther from our stated purpose?” Although the superintendent is a member of the governance team, he or she does not vote and so, in these moments, is appropriate to provide an expert opinion and then to remind board members of their own purpose.
Overall, it is important to remember that school districts are not governed by a single board member but rather, by a board as a whole. The governance team, including the superintendent, assumes collective responsibility for building unity and creating a positive organizational culture in order to govern effectively. As leaders, the governance team sets the tone for organizational culture and a board without unity of purpose, often leads to dysfunction within the larger culture.