Sustaining a high-performing school board

Randy Black of CASB addresses Gilpin Board of Education

by Patty Unruh

The Gilpin County Board of Education substituted a work session on board development for its regular meeting on Tuesday, March 6. The session, which was open to the public, was held at the Central City Elks Lodge. Members Craig Holmes, Brook Ramsey, Sarah Swanson, Kersten Armstrong, and Steve Boulter were present, along with Superintendent David MacKenzie and former Board member Charlotte Taylor.

The purpose of the meeting was how the board can sustain what they have accomplished for the district so far and at a higher level.

The members began with dinner at 5:00 p.m. and started the session at about 6:00. Randy Black of the Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB) spoke to the group on “Sustaining a High Performing School Board.” He interspersed suggestions and recommendations with stories of his experiences assisting other district’s school boards.

Black affirmed his belief that the Gilpin BOE is a strong, steady school board. He distributed a handout entitled “We/Me” containing a number of suggestions and models for strengthening superintendents and boards. The point was that “we” are more effective than just “me.”

Black maintained that the most important question a board should ask is “Why do we exist?” Conversely, most boards focus on “What do we do?” All great groups have habits and standards, he said, and the main thing is for Gilpin’s board to get ownership of their next level. Black pointed out that great governing helps increase student achievement. Interestingly, he called attention to “nine habits of ineffective boards,” among which were to disregard the agenda process, confuse board members’ roles with that of superintendent and staff, nit-pick, micro-manage, play to the media, focus on personal interests, and conflict with other board members and staff. The point, of course, was to avoid those things.

On the other hand, there were several characteristics of effective boards: commit to a vision of high expectations for student achievement and quality instruction, be accountability driven, collaborate with staff and the community, and lead as a united team with the superintendent.

Black provided a template for a simple, strategic agenda that aligns with a district’s mission. It included guidelines for board roles and core values. A board’s picture of a preferred future and its unique purpose should line up with these roles and values.

Black gave the board members a checklist by which they can evaluate themselves. It was a tool that described three sets of performance characteristics for a governing team. He suggested that they start at characteristics of the “developing” level and work their way through to the “highly effective” level, asking themselves, “How are we doing?” on each one.

He also touched on time management, to help a board sort and prioritize. This could be applied to the entire team as well as each individual member. The goal is to spend the most time and energy with non-urgent, important priorities.

“SWOT,” or “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats,” are the foundation to develop many strategic efforts. When making plans to improve, board members may list strengths such as assets and capabilities, weaknesses such as problems and challenges, opportunities such as combining strengths to enhance or protect and weaknesses to be resolved, and threats, including challenges to values, finances, or integrity.

Six questions a board should examine are: “Why do we do this work?” “How do we go about our business?” “What is our current reality?” “Where do we want to be?” “How will we get there?” “How will we know when we get there?” Included in this examination are concepts like motivation, values, vision, and appraising.

Some things can derail, distract, or destroy excellence. Black exhorted Gilpin’s board to take one segment of these “D’s” periodically and talk about it for ten minutes. A few of these derailers included promising power you don’t have, participating in gossip, not being accountable, and losing focus on student success.

Black also provided some tips for evaluating the superintendent, its “one employee.” These are designed for use a few times yearly to rate the superintendent on leadership in several key areas.

Building trust among the board members is also crucial to maximizing effort. Members should talk straight, demonstrate respect, create transparency, show loyalty, clarify expectations, keep commitments, and deliver results.

Black also stressed the importance of diligently mentoring new board members. Sarah Swanson is the newest board member; Black put the others on the spot by asking who is mentoring her. In effect, they all are. Swanson said she asks questions and everyone helps get them answered.

Black opened the floor for input or questions.

Boulter began the comments by affirming his fellow board members.

Craig Holmes recalled that the first time Black facilitated a Gilpin board of education meeting was eight or nine years ago. “There was no affirmation that night!” he declared.

“We were coming from a disorganized place,” Charlotte Taylor explained. “We were having difficulties with trust, morale, and finances.”

“We were struggling financially,” Holmes agreed. “It was extraordinarily difficult to find commonality. Some members had their own agendas. We have diverse backgrounds now, but we do have common ground – we want to do what is best for the kids.”

Taylor added, “For the past eight years, we have been formulating concrete goals to become a school of excellence.”

Brook Ramsey, who coaches middle school girls’ basketball, had recently finished a book on core values to help her team with character development. She felt that the precepts in that book could apply to a school board as well as a sports team. Black agreed, relating working as a board member to being part of a sports huddle.

Holmes addressed board members’ occasional differences of opinion. “We talk them out. Publicly, we are 99.9 percent on the same page. We feel it’s important to be united once our decision has been made.”

The Board turned their attention to core values. Holmes asked Black, “What do you see as a commonality in a high-performing board?”

Black asserted, “Good commitment. A great chief executive, and a great facilitating president. You will not develop sustained student excellence without those.”

Holmes had seen a statistic that on average, a superintendent stays with an urban district for about two and a half years.

“We are not urban, but we’re on the fringe of urban. We went through a stretch where we had two superintendents and an interim in four and a half years – Gore, Ladouceur, and Morris [Ververs]. Morris provided the wisdom, stability, and experience we needed at the time. I became a better board member under him and became more engaged with the superintendent by the time Dave MacKenzie came.”

Policies were addressed. CASB frequently sends suggestions for policy changes. “A lot of times, policy is driven by trivial updates,” Black conceded.

Holmes advised, “We have not trivialized policy. Our number one charge is school policy. We’ve done lots of work on it over the last eight years. We have members constantly reviewing policy. We found we can’t rely just on CASB.”

Black gave the Board some pointers on dealing with the public.

“There’s a growing trend to declare prior work, such as that done in work sessions and retreats,” he advised. “The public doesn’t always understand how the board makes decisions. They come to a meeting and think decisions are rubber stamped.”

He drew a triangle on a large sheet of paper. “This looks like a triangle, but what if I take a blue marker and draw this wavy line across it?”

Board members quickly recognized the line as ocean waves and the triangle as the tip of an iceberg.

“This is ‘tip of the iceberg’ leadership,” Black concurred. “That is a governing body that isolates itself, and it is ineffective leadership. Boards needs to have some sense of the culture they serve. It’s essential to have interpersonal connection and to value people. Give respect with a greeting and a handshake at the entry point of the meeting.”

He also advised, “Meet people where they are. They trust you will do something, so hear them out, use eye contact and appropriate touch. You might not have the power to resolve their issue, so guide them to the proper person to help. Affirm that they can do something about it. Get back in touch later to find out how things went.”

Black got to the heart of things. “It’s about helping kids and valuing others. When you boil it down, it’s all about love.”

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