In public school districts across New Jersey, each January brings a group of new school board members. Just elected, they are sworn into office, and take seats at the dais to begin the work of reviewing policy, making decisions and overseeing district schools.
Most come bringing excitement, nervousness – and questions.
To help newcomers, School Leader gathered answers and advice from people who know the ins and outs of the job: Namely, former school board members, who are now NJSBA field service representatives (FSRs). Terri Lewis and Gwen Thornton recently sat down with NJSBA Communications Officer Jeanette Rundquist for a question-and-answer interview.
Gwen Thornton, a field services rep for 11 years, served 10 years as a member of the Bridgewater-Raritan Board of Education in Somerset County, and as president for five years. A former high school social studies teacher, Gwen is now an FSR serving Somerset, Middlesex, Union and the northern half of Hunterdon County.
Terri Lewis, an NJSBA FSR for more than six years, spent a decade on the East Greenwich Township School Board in Gloucester County. She was president for eight years – while her husband simultaneously served on the Kingsway Regional High School Board. Terri now serves Gloucester, Salem and Camden counties as an FSR.
In an hour-long conversation Terri and Gwen shared what they learned as board members; what they wish they’d known, when they started; and what they’d most like new board members to know, as they take their positions on school boards.
What are your thoughts on training? What should new members look for or pay special attention to, as they go through training? When should they take training?
GT: Paying attention to learning the appropriate role for a board member and what they are responsible for is critically important. You should take training as soon as you possibly can. If you have the opportunity to do in-person training, particularly the weekend orientation, I think that is the most beneficial. In addition to being able to access information from NJSBA staff, it provides you the opportunity to network with other brand-new board members. You begin to develop a network of people you can talk to, learn with, and lean on.
TL: I have to agree. When I started, if I had done the training a little bit earlier, it might have provided an easier transition. There are a lot of misconceptions when you’re new. You think the board does things that it does not. Training drastically reduces the learning curve.
Any other things new board members should do to prepare for serving on a board?
TL: The first thing I would do is introduce myself and meet with the board president, provided the district doesn’t have an in-district mentoring program, which many do. Those that do have such a program will reach out to the newly-elected board members and put them through an in-district orientation.
GT: My FSR and mentor, Carol Larsen, used to talk about “three documents, three hours.” They were, an hour with the board president; an hour with the superintendent; and an hour with the business administrator. Three documents means, getting a copy of the district policy manual; a copy of all negotiated agreements with all various bargaining units; and a copy of a year’s worth of minutes. Most of those things are now available online, so you can do a lot of this when it’s convenient to you. It’s a way of acclimating yourself. Reading a year’s worth of minutes gives you some historical perspective on where we are today – and how did we get from wherever we were, to wherever we are.
What was it like to go through your first board meeting?
GT: Reorganization has so many specific mandated requirements. You’re readopting your policy manual, and all curriculum and textbooks used in the district. You’re reappointing your 504 officer, and your HIB coordinator. A lot of that is pretty arcane, and only happens once a year. No matter how prepared they have tried to make you, because education uses so many acronyms, and there are so many moving parts, for many people it can be a bit overwhelming. But I found it exciting and interesting. I was very excited to become a board member.
TL: As a new board member you run the gamut from thinking, “I don’t know what this is,” to “I don’t want to ask any questions because I’m new,” to “ I’m asking a question about everything.” If you can get ahead of the curve, it’s a lot easier. I was pretty fortunate. In advance of the meeting, I met with the business administrator and the superintendent, and they went over the agenda. They said, “this is what this is, these are what these items are, this is the terminology.”
GT: That’s why we brought back our “3 Rs” training, to talk to board members about that first meeting, their roles, relationships and responsibilities. That way, when they get to the first meeting and are sworn in, they have a better idea of what to expect.
What is the craziest thing that ever happened at one of your board meetings?
TL: One of the crazy things I was totally unprepared for was negotiations. We’d start at 4 in the afternoon, and at midnight, or 1 a.m., we still had no resolution. In one round of negotiations I lost my babysitter, because his mom said I can’t keep him out that late, it’s a school night. After the first time I went through it, the next time I said, we’re not doing this without a negotiator.
What was your most difficult moment as a board member?
TL: I think it was the meeting we did away with kindergarten. Our “kindergarten” wasn’t what most districts call kindergarten; we called that “Beginners.” Our “kindergarten” was for the kids who weren’t quite ready for Beginners, like a preschool readiness program. It was put in place 40 years before, but when budgeting got tight, we had to make the decision to do it another way. That was really tough, because it was an institution.
GT: September 11. September 11. We had lots of parents, lots of kids who were left at school. Dealing with that, making sure there was somewhere for them to be, and people for them to be with; providing support for students, parents and staff who had lost family members; that was very difficult and very challenging. Everyone thinks Bridgewater is a big town, but it’s really not that big at all. And it was not just the town, but the whole county. Everybody knew somebody.
What was your most gratifying moment as a board member?
GT: The day we finished the expansion of the high school in our district. When we opened that, it was the most exciting piece. But I’m prouder of our curriculum: the AP courses we offered, the co-curricular activities, the in-district autism class, and so many things. I also got to give diplomas to my kids, and not just my kids –to the field hockey team my daughter was the captain of. My daughters’ other friends. You watched these kids go from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood. You’ve known these kids for a long time.
TL: You do so much as a board member, after many years it all starts running together. But toward the end, my oldest had gone to college, and I was thinking about taking the job at NJSBA. He said “Go ahead, Mom, you’ll probably be good at it.” He said, “I got a whole lot better education than most of the kids I go to college with, so I guess I should thank you.” I was shocked. All those years, and you think no one’s paying attention.
Why did you decide to run for school board, in the first place?
TL: I wanted to evoke some major change. But the things I wanted to change were things I could not impact. Once you come to grips with that, you learn to work within the framework, and you can effect change differently. The outcomes were different than what I had expected, but they were also good.
GT: I had been involved in the PTA and as a class mom. I had been a teacher, and I felt I could make positive change.
What was your favorite part of school, or subject, as a child?
TL: My favorite thing was English. I can still remember learning to read. I can honestly tell you when I figured it out. I was looking at the book and could figure out what the words said, and I was so excited. And I liked band. I loved band. I played drums and percussion.
GT: Social studies and reading. I love to read.
What do you think is the most pressing issue facing schools today?
TL: Oh gee, pick one?
GT: Continuing to provide high-quality education and opportunities for all students, in light of fiscal constraints, and ongoing state and federal mandates.
TL: To be more specific, the 2 percent cap is a killer.
What one thing would you most like new board members to know, as they move into their new roles?
TL: I can’t limit it to one. I have a list.
GT: We would have a list.
TL: I think it’s important they know that if they have questions, there’s a place they can get answers. Not specific to the district, but if they’re larger questions, or responsibility or role questions, they are free to contact us. I don’t think a lot of board members know that.
GT: I agree that’s really important. If they have a legal question, they can call our legal department. Or a question on ethics. Or labor relations. We are here as a resource for them. At a bare minimum, become familiar with our website. In terms of, what’s most important to know as they begin their board service, they need to listen carefully, and understand they’re part of a team. No individual, by themselves, is going to make a positive difference. You have to work with your fellow board members to be an effective team, and that team includes your superintendent, business administrator, all the people who influence education in your district. We also sometimes suggest, at least for the first meeting or so, you may want to listen carefully. Understand the relationships. Observe body language.
TL: Board members are the busiest people out there. They’re always strapped for time. If they don’t have time, the one thing they have to do is read (NJSBA’s) School Board Notes. Read School Board Notes to stay on top of things.
GT: And read School Leader.