Do you remember walking into your first meeting as a brand new board member?
Tom Maier of Pemberton can easily recall the trepidation of that first meeting. “You are sworn in and then almost immediately you are voting for a new president and vice-president,” he says. “You hit the ground running and you find out what is truly involved with being a board member. If you are lucky you may know a few people or you may not know anyone.”
The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.
New board members quickly learn that there is no apprenticeship for board membership; they are sworn in and their responsibilities are equal to those who have served for several terms.
Each year, an average of 500 people in New Jersey join a school board for the first time, so Tom’s experience is not unique. Most of them come with high expectations and a fervent desire to make a positive impact on their schools and their communities. Yet often they join the board without knowing many of their board colleagues or the school administrators. And, since the role of the board of education is not one that is widely understood, they may have only a cursory knowledge of school governance. This is true even if they are professional educators.
While the individual board member obviously wants to be effective, it is also important for the entire board that he or she is successful. Just adding one new member to a local board of education changes the group dynamics (it should be noted that this change is not necessarily bad, but it is different), and so everyone on the board has an interest in a successful transition, not just the new board members.
With so many new board members coming on every year, it is the rare district that is not impacted by a change in the board dynamics. If we agree that a single new member on a board can have an impact in a district, think about the statewide impact that a smooth transition for all new board members could have.
So what can a board member do to make their first year more productive? And what can the veteran board members and the administration do to make this transition smoother?
School Leader interviewed school board members who are either finishing their first term or have only spent a couple of years on the board, and found there is much we can all learn from their experience about incorporating a new school board member or two (or even three) onto the board of education. We spoke with Tom Maier of Pemberton, Jeffrey Klein of Fair Lawn, and Kathy Helewa of Warren Township. Maier joined his board in 2014; Klein in 2013 and Helewa in 2015.
So how do existing board members think we can all build more effective boards of education? Spoiler alert: It is not very complicated; it is basically about building professional relationships. Those relationships are with your board colleagues, school administrators and even the New Jersey School Boards Association.
While it is easy to say you need good professional relationships with others, it is very different – and not always easy – to build and maintain relationships. Relationship building also takes time, and sometimes as new board members, we want to accomplish our goals and implement our initiatives right away. But anything we accomplish on a school board is always done collectively, not individually.
This concept of accomplishments needing to be collective was apparent to Jeff Klein early on. “It is an adjustment when a new trustee learns that the role is just one of nine and that the role is about policy and oversight only,” says Klein. He realized that a “level of diplomacy” was necessary in order to move initiatives and be successful. So the time board members spend getting to know each other early on will not only save time, but help everyone accomplish more.
What can a new board member do to help build their relationship with their board colleagues? It is clear that they have to take time to get to know their colleagues informally. Building a good working relationship ironically happens away from the board table and meeting.
Kathy Helewa found that she enjoyed getting better acquainted with fellow board members. “I especially liked casually having coffee, breakfast, or lunch with board members during my first year, simply to learn more about them individually and to familiarize myself with their backgrounds and general philosophies,” she says, “And I still do!” Jeffrey Klein, who also is a fan of the casual cup of coffee with fellow board members says, “It is important in those conversations to be honest about what you believe; however more importantly, a new trustee must listen.” Tom Maier adds “I try to find out about their work, family, or other interest so we may have a common ground to work with, so a bond can form.”
A new board member probably has ideas and initiatives he or she would like to see if not implemented, at least discussed. How should they go about advocating for their initiatives? Jeffrey Klein believes that the best strategy is to proceed judiciously. “Speak to the superintendent and veterans about it first,” he says. “Learn the background of the issue.” This will help you be better informed. Tom Maier suggests new members be honest about their views, but not belligerent. Neither Klein nor Maier is proposing that new board members meekly follow other board members, just that they remember that when someone takes the lead on a board, they must do it collaboratively, which is why it is important to build solid relationships.
You also might find out, as Kathy Helewa, did that her biggest surprise upon becoming a school board member was “I was serving with people who were a lot like me: Parents and concerned community members who want, and work hard to attain, what’s best for our schools.”
The new board members don’t bear total responsibility for the relationship. Established board members should reciprocate or even initiate a get-acquainted gesture. Jeff Klein, who defeated an incumbent board member in his first election and who has strong opinions, had to learn quickly to navigate the inner workings of his board. Two veteran board members helped him when he did not always see eye-to-eye with his board colleagues. According to Klein, one of them, Elyse Frenkel, made him realize that the board has nine trustees – each of whom were passionate about serving the district. “Elyse helped me see that, even when our opinions differed,” he says. Another board member, Gene Banta, who was the longest-serving member of the board, also stepped in and helped the veteran board members see Jeff’s point of view.
Kathy Helewa’s board assigned her a board mentor who provided her with the history and the back story behind the different issues the board faced. “She guided me through the correct protocols and procedures, and she was always available for all my questions,” she says. “I certainly had a tremendous number of questions that first year.” Helewa recommends that all school districts designate experienced mentors for new board members.
The Board Member-Superintendent Relationship
It is also crucial that a school board member build a good relationship with the school administrators, especially the superintendent. All three of our new board members followed a similar process in developing a relationship with the superintendent. They noted that it is necessary from the beginning to respect that the superintendent is the educational leader of your school district and that, as Jeff Klein points out, “you cannot get anything done without his or her cooperation.” “Your superintendent has a wealth of experience in policy, procedure, current and past issues and trends in public education,” says Kathy Helewa, “and can be a great resource, especially in that first year.”
As with your board colleagues, having relaxed conversations can help you get to know your superintendent. Tom Maier recommends that you schedule a meeting with the superintendent to help build that relationship and that as a new board member you should talk to the superintendent to find out what he or she thinks is important, and why. This will help you understand some of the district’s current and past policies and initiatives.
While the three board members agree that your board colleagues and your school administrators are key resources and need to be tapped, they also recommend that new school board members go beyond their district’s borders to get information. While NJSBA provides the mandatory training programs that school board members must take, Jeff Klein points out that “it is up to the individual to go beyond the requirements,” and suggests they should. Tom Maier adds that board members need to do this because things are changing so quickly. “What is new this week will be old next week,” he says.
All three recommend attending county school board meetings, NJSBA training programs, and Workshop, and reading NJSBA publications. (If you are reading this article, then you are off to a good start!) “If people don’t avail themselves of NJSBA services, I really don’t know how they can serve on a school board,”says Kathy Helewa.
Even the best-prepared board members will face challenges and decisions that are not easy. New board members should be prepared for that. For Jeff Klein, it is a challenge balancing his role as a parent and a school board member, as well as the realization that when you make hard personnel decisions – even though they are justified – you realize it is affecting someone’s livelihood. That is made easier when the board member reminds himself that he is basing his decision on what is the best thing for the students. Kathy Helewa still finds it tough when she has to navigate through difficult situations like negotiations, when she knows there will be conflict and unhappiness.
While they all have found board service to be very challenging at times, they also have found it satisfying and worthwhile . In fact, Jeff Klein and Kathy Helewa both sought –and won – reelection after their term was up. What keeps them interested in serving on the school board? For Tom Maier, it is the feeling that he is doing something that is helping to improve the education of the children in the district. Kathy Helewa describes the satisfaction of “learning so much and putting it to good use for the kids,” while for Jeff Klein it is “being part of something greater than yourself.”
Being part of something greater than yourself aptly describes the endeavor that all board members – new and veteran – are involved in. New board members who work at building relationships and learning the skills and information necessary to do their job effectively will no doubt find the same satisfaction that our three interviewees have experienced.