We are not experts in law, policy, or even boardsmanship, but between us, we have served on local boards of education for more than 50 years.

A half century of service, including stints by both of us as board presidents, have given us an appreciation of how important it is to choose the right person to lead your local board. While individual board members are, understandably, focused on the election which determines who will be on the board, the election of who will lead your board is perhaps even more important.

Our boards have faced problems that range from fiscal to interpersonal, and found solutions that have worked for our districts, our students, our parents, our communities, our staff and our administrators.

Over the years, it has become clear to us that one of the most important prerequisites for implementing successful and workable solutions to problems in our districts is having the right leadership and focus.

Your board wants to be effective; that’s why you and your colleagues ran for the board to begin with.  But all boards face challenges. Finances and school funding are a perennial difficulty, as are tasks such as contract negotiations, facility and technology maintenance and upgrades, and dealing with community expectations. Governing a school district has become even more complex since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools statewide to close.

Conducting business as a board of education also requires that nine individuals (some boards have more members, some fewer, but most boards have nine) work closely together. Those nine people come from different backgrounds, possess different strengths, and hold different perspectives on what is important and how to achieve it.

At no time is a board more aware and more focused on its individual personal differences than at the reorganization meeting, which takes place during the first week in January for most boards.   

The decisions made at this reorganization meeting will help or hinder the direction, the actions and the reactions of the board—and thus the school district—for the upcoming year.

How Do You Select Board Leadership? Boards throughout the state of New Jersey select their board leadership in a variety of ways. There is not necessarily a right way or a wrong way. If the method your board uses seems to work, then there is little point in tinkering—if it’s not broken, don’t fix it!  But boards should reflect on the drawbacks of various methods of a choosing a president.

Seniority Some boards tend to defer to the member with the most years of service. Institutional knowledge and experience are certainly a plus in a board president. But it’s also true that a board president needs to have leadership skills and training. Is that veteran board member willing to entertain—and even seek out—new and innovative approaches to issues? Have they kept their board skills current, and continued to invest time in their own professional development?

The Rotation Some boards rotate the leadership role between members, so everyone gets a chance to serve as board president. But here are some questions to ask yourself if your board uses this system. Does the prospective president have the necessary skill set to be a leader? Does he or she have a good working relationship with the other board members and administrators? Is a one- or two-year rotation enough time to establish leadership or is it disruptive to the flow of board and district management?

The Popularity Contest Since board presidents are elected, many times it is the best-liked member who gets the most votes. But leaders may have to make tough decisions that won’t win popularity contests. Can the prospective leader lead a board through difficult decision-making? Can he or she manage a  hostile community group or an agitated public at a meeting?

Superintendent’s Choice We have heard of cases where a superintendent makes a recommendation on who should be board president. Again, there can be advantages to getting input from the chief school administrator. A board president needs to have a good working relationship with the superintendent. But the board should reflect on why the superintendent may prefer this board member. Is this trustee most easily led or less likely to challenge the superintendent?

If your board needs to do a better job of choosing its leader, it may be time to change your approach. To effectively pick a leader, it helps to understand the characteristics of a good leader.

Profile of an Effective Leader There are some traits all boards need in a leader. One of the most critical skills you are looking for in a board president is excellent two-way communication skills. Another characteristic all boards need in a leader: someone with a passion for the work of the board, who embraces the district mission and understands the goals of your strategic plan. Please be certain that the person you select has the time, energy and desire to assume the role of president.

Below are some of the other characteristics frequently cited by experts as being essential to good leaders:

  • They are clear about what needs to be done.
  • They share and can express the group vision of a desirable future in simple language.
  • They set clear goals and persist in achieving them.
  • They are idea generators.
  • They inspire others to follow them.
  • They challenge assumptions.
  • They accept and use conflict as needed.
  • They are imitated by others.
  • They are persistent about getting results.
  • When they speak, others listen to them (even their detractors).
  • They are good at persuading people.
  • They recognize and utilize the unique value of others.
  • They tackle difficult problems.
  • They can accept not being liked.
  • They are not paralyzed by mistakes; they move on.
  • They can “read the room,” and understand the positions of others.
  • They can keep their cool in hot situations.
  • They understand the issues at hand.
  • They command the respect of the board and administration without imposing their own point of view.
  • They know their limitations.
  • They are accountable and responsible.
  • They have the ability to delegate.
  • They are skilled at team building and promoting teamwork.
  • They express gratitude.
  • They have empathy.
  • They have courage.
  • They have respect for the group.
  • They lead by example.
  • They demonstrate integrity.
  • They communicate effectively.
  • They can make hard decisions.
  • They empower others.

While no single person will embody all these characteristics, it is worth thinking about what is important to your board, and actively choosing with that in mind. The reality is that matching board leadership to district needs is not simple, and the district needs change depending on circumstances.

The priority of other characteristics will depend on the current work of the board. Boards should consider where the new board president will have to focus attention. Will the president need:

  • To be an ambassador between the board and the new superintendent?
  • To lead a difficult negotiation situation?
  • To lead the board through a superintendent search?
  • To lead the district through development of a strategic plan?
  • To maintain the status quo?
  • To develop a conflicted board into a well-oiled, collegial team?

As the needs of your board change, the best choice for president may also change. What is important is for your board to consider who best fits the needs of the board at this time.

What to Expect from Your Board Leadership The relationship between the board and the board president is not an unconditional one. Once elected, the board has expectations of the president. Some of those include the usual expectations of confidentiality, preparedness and being apolitical.

However there are further expectations of your board leadership.

  • Do you expect your board president to be fair and support the expression of minority positions?
  • Do you expect your board president to actively listen to all board members?
  • Do you expect your board president to be well versed in appropriate procedures when conducted the board meetings?
  • Do you expect your board president to encourage a good working relationship with the superintendent?
  • Do you expect your board president to know your board policy or where to quickly access it?
  • Do you expect your board president to respond quickly and accurately to communication from board members?
  • Do you expect your board president to encourage and mentor future board leadership?

Throughout this article, we have raised more questions than answers. That’s because each board needs to assess and evaluate their local needs and their desired district direction when electing their board president.

So we urge you to ask yourself these questions and be sure that when you elect your next board president you have a well-thought out and deliberate process, and you choose leadership based on their skills and temperament.

Sheli Dansky is currently the vice president of the River Edge Board of Education. She has served as a board member for 30 years, including as president, and has been president of the Bergen County School Boards Association. She was the 2016-2017 New Jersey Board Member of the Year. Irene LeFebvre, the 2020-2021 New Jersey Board Member of the Year, has served on the Boonton Town Board of Education for 26 years. She has served as both president and vice president of her board, and is currently president of the Morris County School Boards Association. Both are longtime small-group leaders for NJSBA training programs.