School leaders get advice on building a better board

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Adamson shares wisdom, wit on effective board


TELL CITY – The director of board services for the Indiana School Boards Association shared advice gleaned from experience as a trustee and as an advocate of Indiana school boards during an April 23 session with the Tell City-Troy Township School Board.

At the outset of the three-hour meeting, which drew no one from the public other than representatives of the News and the school corporation’s classroom teachers association, Michael Adamson shared wit and wisdom through a slide show and asked the board to list positives and negatives. Positives included the belief that board members were focused on the same goals of bettering schools, the now completed transition from an appointed to an elected school board and significant improvements on last year’s ISTEP scores.

Concerns board members raised included fears that the board might micromanage school affairs and the need to become more organized and efficient. Others spoke of financial challenges in the past several years and the need to update and adhere to board policies.

Adamson spent much of his time talking about what makes boards effective, saying “being on a board is a lot like being part of a large family.” That familiarity with each other doesn’t mean board members will always agree and will often “get on each other’s nerves,” he said.

Himself a past 20-year board member in Avon, Adamson said school boards – which choose and evaluate superintendents and are held accountable by the public that elects them – must learn to govern themselves and to cope with the challenges of personalities and new elections that will eventually bring new faces – and ideas – to the board. If not, the ensuing dysfunction can strip boards of their effectiveness.

He also stressed the role of board members, whose power he said flows from meetings and not from individual authority, and said trustees should not see their jobs as finding solutions to every issue or jumping over existing levels of accountability that include not only superintendents but classroom teachers and building principals.

“It’s never been our job to run school buildings. We have a governance oversight in that regard. We hire licensed professionals,” he said.

Board members, he said, should be leery of taking matters in their own hands, from individually investigating school complaints from parents or others in the community to making surprise visits to schools when staff and students are working.

The evening discussion was open and collegial with some of those speaking voicing confidence that building administrators do their jobs well and hold others accountable.

Sherri Flynn, who is serving her first term on the board, and other board members said that hadn’t always been done. She said board members have confidence that problems are now addressed quickly and properly.

Adamson said the board has the job of setting expectations and goals, often set out in a vision statement that offers a board declaration of goals.

Setting high expectations isn’t always easy, he said, but is important. If not, board members risk becoming more concerned about “popularity contests” instead of reaching hard goals.

Other suggestions set forth by Adamson included:

• Asking for the input of superintendents on what he or she feels the board’s proper role is.

• Undertaking a strategic plan that supports the board’s mission statement.

• “Let go of minutiae,” he said and focus instead on meaningful issues, budgets, data-driven decision making, student achievement, community engagement and vision building.

• Avoid political decisions and instead rely on decisions based on objective information.

• Let go of hidden agendas and political alliances, which he said nearly always show themselves.

• Make decisions by consensus. He said board members should share concerns about recommendations made by superintendents before meetings. And while board members should always follow and vote their consciences, they should be open to input from superintendents and other board members before a decision is made.

He said all board members should support board decisions, “whatever the member’s own views might be.”