Education Up Front

November 9, 2004

November 23, 2004

December 14, 2004

What does an effective school board look like?

This year's political season is over -- for the most part, that is -- with voters having elected candidates from the president of the United States to city council members to directors of local water boards. Some cities, I'm told, even elected their mayor outright with a majority vote. Amazing, considering our local predicament.

Included in the newly elected matrix of citizen politicians are several members of school boards from the county's 42 school districts. Chief among these are three new trustees of the five-member San Diego City Schools Board of Education.

Serving on school boards these days is a significant challenge in an era of high-stakes standardized tests, a continuing state funding crisis and restless employee unions of teachers and other district staffers whose salary increases in recent years have not kept pace with the raises they once enjoyed. Add to that the grinding personality clashes among board members that have characterized some board meetings -- again, the City Schools Board being the chief culprit.

Standardized tests, inadequate funding and salary freezes will still be with the state and our region's school boards when most of them seat their new members next month. Gone, hopefully, will be the ugly brawls that have turned some board meetings into political mud wrestling matches.

What should we as parents, taxpayers, employers and community members in general be looking for in our school boards as they begin their new terms? While there is no single model of an ideal school board member, there are standards of performance and conduct that will contribute to the level and style of governance necessary to enhance the capacity of our schools to improve student achievement and opportunity for every student.

In no particular order, here are some behaviors that school board members should adopt:

  • Understand the board's role and responsibilities. School board members need to understand what their duties are -- primarily to provide the leadership and oversight necessary to enable their district to provide a quality education for every student. And, they need to keep in mind that they, individually and as a board, are ever accountable to the community.

  • Be knowledgeable about district policies and guidelines. The school district was in place long before the new board member assumed office and it's more than probable it will exist long after he or she leaves the board. Any changes that may be necessary to improve student achievement have to take into consideration present policies in order to solve whatever the deficiency or problems were; not create new ones.

  • Work well as a team. No mavericks or Lone Rangers, please. It is the board, rather than individuals, that establishes the policies and makes decisions to guide the school district. Board members need to collaborate with staff, parents, other agencies -- as well as the business community -- to build relationships that encourage the best from all students.

  • Focus on serving all children. Make sure every decision the board makes takes into consideration the best interests of all students they serve. No child is more important than any other.

  • Focus on student achievement as the district's top priority. Period. All other issues are secondary.

  • Understand demeanor has consequences. The manner in which board members act individually and collectively impacts the climate of the school district -- right down to the school and classroom levels. Have integrity and professionalism, to set the tone for how district staff, teachers -- and students -- should behave. Be fair and consistent in order to create an environment where long-term changes can be implemented and sustained.

  • Respect different perspectives and styles. Members need to keep in mind that the board is as diverse as the community it serves. They need to respect fellow board members' right to hold differing views -- and to accept and support the will of the majority.

  • Commit the time and energy required to be effective. As much as any local political office, school board members need to make a major commitment of family, career and leisure time to public service. This commitment involves many hours each week in meetings, studying board materials before the meetings, taking phone calls, listening to parents and other constituents, visiting schools and participating in workshops and seminars in order to expand their capacity to serve effectively.

    The overarching requirement for being an effective school board member is to have a strong belief in the value of public education and a deep commitment to serve and educate all children. School board members must have a passion for democracy and a true understanding that their role is to implement the will of the majority, not to impose their own will on each other, district staff and most importantly, on other people's children. At the same time, as in any adult endeavor, school board members must have the personal capacity to learn and grow.

    Let's hope that the new and old members alike of the San Diego City Schools Board of Education and other school boards across our county have the discipline to meet these commonsense standards. We cannot afford to have school boards fail the test.

    Hovenic is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the Foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. E-mail her at

  • November 9, 2004

    November 23, 2004

    December 14, 2004