The following are some pointers to help you lead the board to achieve its maximum effectiveness.
1. Know your board members.
You probably already have some information about their personal lives, but get to know and understand their viewpoints, interests, strengths, weaknesses and approach to decision-making and problem-solving. Learn which board members like to analyze information, to discuss at length or move an entire agenda at once. Recognizing these traits in your board members will help you to bring out their best qualities.
2. Realize that the collective knowledge of the board is superior to that of an individual.
We each bring our backgrounds, experiences and unique perspectives to an issue and when a board explores solutions with each member’s full participation, the outcome is usually more creative and cost-effective than it would be otherwise.
3. Establish a tone of cooperative leadership.
Emphasize cooperation and work to reduce conflict. The board president has the major responsibility for establishing good working relationships with the superintendent and other administrators and among school board members. Set the tone for board member relationships by speaking of the need for cooperation and mutual respect and by allowing for diversity of opinion.
4. Firmly take charge of school board meetings.
Be prepared, positive and assertive in steering discussion and keeping it on target. Use the power of the chair to keep the board dealing with board business rather than wandering into unproductive, political or philosophical areas. Move on when it’s time to move on. It’s this power of the chair that keeps a meeting from degenerating into a circus when touchy topics are on the agenda.
Also, learn parliamentary procedure. Using judgment about when to be firm and when to be lenient about applying the procedures is the true test of knowledge and skill.
Lead the board, but don’t be so far ahead of the other board members or constituents as to appear to abandon them or their interests. The president personifies the board. If you preside effectively, the board will be viewed as effective. If you are weak or ineffective in your leadership, the public will view the board in that light.
5. Include each board member in the decision-making process.
You may have been elected by a certain coalition on the board, but as president you are the group’s leader and often expected to be the mediator. Don’t play to one side. Share information and consult each board member on an equal basis. Initially, this may be uncomfortable for some boards, but in the long run, the board will be more effective if all members think they are being treated fairly. Besides, board coalitions shift, sometimes from issue to issue and you may be in the minority someday. The others will remember that.
Recognize that the issue on the table or being discussed privately with you may be rooted in another concern all together. The overwhelming quality necessary for effective board leadership is to listen.
People who address the board want to be reassured that they have been understood. It helps for you to say something like, “I think I understand what you are bringing up” and repeat the statement. Often, people will keep saying the same thing because they are not sure the board understands. When you repeat what the speaker has said, it will also help other board members grasp the speaker’s idea accurately.
Eye contact is another important part of good listening. It shows that the board is listening.
7. Make sure your board members know you can be trusted.
You may often be your board members’ sounding board for ideas or complaints. Their concerns are real—don’t gossip about them. Where appropriate, address these concerns without pointing fingers or naming names. If Judy complains to you that Mark dominates discussion at meetings, then use your leadership skills to make sure everyone has an opportunity to be heard.
8. Prepare for meetings.
Part of the board president’s homework is being involved in planning the board meeting agenda and reviewing upcoming items with the superintendent. Also included in your take-home assignments is thorough preparation for each board meeting. It takes twice as much homework time to be a good board president as it does to be a prepared board member.
9. Plan for board development.
It’s up to the president to ensure that the board is and stays effective. This includes both setting an example and encouraging board members to attend local, state, regional and national meetings. It also includes planning board retreats, self-evaluations and other workshops designed especially for your board. Workshops and professional journals are what help keep school board members—no matter what size community they serve—open to new ideas in education. Meetings add perspective unavailable in a local community.
10. Build the board/superintendent relationship.
A board president needs to understand and to interpret for others the difference between the roles of the board and the superintendent. You should make sure board members understand their proper role as policy makers who work through the superintendent. There is definitely a teaching role on the part of the board president, especially when new members come on board.
The fine line between what is policy and what is administration makes it essential that you be able to clarify such situations for the board as a whole.
Another part of the board president’s role in establishing the proper board/superintendent relationship is to foster a sense of integrity where the board and superintendent can be trusted to be forthright and honest with each other. At the very least, the board and superintendent should generally agree to praise publicly and criticize privately. You can help foster a feeling of mutual trust and respect by interpreting board action to the superintendent and vice versa. You can offer the superintendent support, serve as a sounding board, give constructive criticism when needed and help analyze individual and community reactions to district action.
11. Build good relationships.
The board president is in an excellent position to help foster good relationships between the board and the staff, the board and the press, the board and the public, the system and other community and government organizations and among board members themselves. You can encourage board recognition of staff accomplishments and two-way communication with school employees. You can ensure that members of the community feel welcome at board meetings and that they have access to the board. You can maintain communication with other community leaders and government officials, and can serve as a board spokesman to the media.
12. Stay cool, even if you come under attack.
It’s inevitable that some school board decisions, no matter how carefully deliberated, will upset some members of the community. Recognize that angry reactions go with the territory. When anger arises during a school board meeting, it’s up to you to defuse the situation using compassionate language. If you think you need a break, in your kindest tone, declare a 5-minute break. Do not give in to the impulse to yell, become combative or let anger show during a meeting.