In a few short weeks, many of New Jersey’s boards of education will swear in new members.
The New Jersey School Boards Association conducts its New Board Member Orientation in three formats: the weekend orientation course, one-day sessions, and online. New board members are urged to take their mandated new board member training as soon as possible, and I always advise them to sign up for the weekend program. It’s the gold standard for school board member training.
Equally important to the formal orientation that new members receive from NJSBA is their initiation from their fellow board members and district administration.
While many new board members may be somewhat familiar with the school district, and may have attended many board meetings, we all know that the view is remarkably different from the other side of the board table.
New board members need an overview of all facets of a school district. In some large districts, it is possible that board members have never even been inside some district schools. There are processes and procedures that are individual to each district, and each district has its own distinct set of challenges. So it’s critical that the established board members warmly welcome their new colleagues and offer to help them become acclimated to their new role.
In our district, Maple Shade, where I am currently the board president, newly elected board members are invited in to meet with the board president and the superintendent to get an overview of the district and of the roles and responsibilities of school board members. We spend about an hour-and-a-half talking with the new board member, answering any questions he or she may have, and providing written materials.
We talk to them about what board members may and may not do; how our various committees work; what their first board meeting will be like; and how meetings proceed.
We also discuss situations they may encounter as a board member, and what they should do in varying circumstances.
The new member may be used to looking at the school district through the lens of being a parent or a citizen of the community, but he or she needs to look at things like a board member.
We also informally have a member of our board act as a mentor and provide a sounding board for the newbie. We have found that sometimes new board members are reluctant to ask questions of the board president or superintendent, but they feel comfortable talking with another board member. This is one of the most valuable things we can do.
Sometimes it’s difficult to welcome a new board member who has won election after spending a few months criticizing the board and the district. But it is important for the existing board members take the professional “high road” and graciously welcome the new member. It doesn’t serve anyone’s interest — least of all your students — to have board members who aren’t willing to work together.
I also encourage all board members to embrace continued professional development. NJSBA’s county school boards association programs, publications, webinars, videos and podcasts are all designed to make you a better board member. You can keep up with the opportunities for training through the NJSBA website.