No doubt you have heard the absolutely true maxim that school board service is a team effort. For our governance to work optimally, we build off the strengths, perspectives, and knowledge of all those seated around the board table. We ask, listen, consider and discuss. No one person, no matter how experienced, holds all the answers or information on an important issue that comes before the board. 

Matters of finance and operations appear on every regular board of education meeting agenda. On the routine side fall monthly board secretary’s and treasurer’s reports and the monthly payment of bills. 

In contrast, the annual school budget is a complex and highly visible issue upon which all your educational programming and the entire function of your school district depends.  To cast an informed vote, every board member, even those who work in the world of numbers and finance, needs assistance to gain an appropriate knowledge base in matters of school finance. 

The school business administrator, or BA, is the certificated professional who serves the board and district in overseeing all matters that comprise the business end of running a school district, including accounting, contracting, financial planning, facilities and maintenance, personnel, food and transportation.  

Your BA’s knowledge and understanding of your school district is vast. The information that resides with the BA must be shared with the board so everyone can  do the job that they were elected to do.  In some districts, that information comes to the board via the superintendent, the board’s one and only employee. But as a matter of leadership style, often — but not always — board members are granted direct access to the business administrator to have their questions answered.  Knowing that student achievement is the ultimate objective of everyone on the board and in the school district, what is the best way for a school board member to interact with the BA, in a manner that builds one’s governance skills and reinforces student success? 

The Board Member’s Role The most crucial underpinning for effectiveness as a school board member and in responsible governance is to know and honor your role. Overstepping or going outside of your lane will only sabotage the good work you mean to do and the good work of the board.  To understand your responsibilities as an individual board member and as a collective board of education relative to financial oversight, look at the Finance section of the Board Self-Evaluation template, available on the NJSBA website. The areas regarding district money matters delineated in the Board Self-Evaluation are the spaces in which the board and board members can, indeed, must, comfortably dwell. You should be familiar with and rely on pertinent board policy, as always. And furthermore, remember that as a board member, your focus is on the annual and long-term goals of the district, as opposed to items of personal importance to you or your family. With all the above in mind, make sure that you have a clear understanding of your superintendent’s expectations for board member/ BA communications, and you are ready to go forth.  

The board’s role as your district’s visionary could seem infinite. You have big ideas, as you should!  However, the district administration can only take finite steps to actualize your vision for the district. Put another way, your vision costs money and resources, both of which are limited.  As a board member, you need a broad understanding of how much money the district needs to operate and to advance the board’s goals. This helps the board to make sound decisions.  

With your fellow board members, you should know where money and resources are coming from, and how they can be used to advance the goals of the district. You must use a wide view rather than a tactical one. As such, you do not have to understand every purchase order. You don’t need to ask, or know, “How much are we spending on paper and pens … and how much can we cut?”  Your BA and their team are responsible for making dollars stretch as far as they can. 

The Annual School Budget The board focuses on the big picture. One of the four duties of a board of education is to provide “quality instruction through curriculum standards, assessing needs, supporting professional development and assessing results.” The annual school budget is the financial representation of these words — and of your district goals, and your strategic plan. The BA, in conjunction with the superintendent, has an integral role in building the budget, and the board votes to approve the final document. 

While you and your board do not create the budget, your role is to ensure that the budget your board passes will provide every student in your district a thorough and efficient education and reflects the educational priorities that the board has for your district. In order to discern that the budget does those things, regardless of your level of experience on your school board, you’re going to need to ask questions. Do not shy away from asking them.   Rest assured that your superintendent, your BA, your fellow board members, and, importantly, the constituents who voted you into office, all want you to understand how the proposed budget fulfills the district’s obligations and the board’s vision, so you can cast a responsible vote.  

Well in advance of that vote, you can consider making an appointment to review the budget with your BA if you have direct access, or with your superintendent if you don’t. Your questions should focus on supporting the educational program, annual priorities, long-term goals and operational needs and challenges. As long as you focus on your proper role, there is no such thing as a stupid question. It takes time to get your sea legs, and even veteran school board members are learning throughout their service about school district needs and operations. 

Challenges and resources change from year to year. It is not your job to have expertise in creating strategies to address challenges — that duty belongs to the BA and superintendent.  But you must understand them, and it is the administration’s duty to ensure that you do.

Other Board Financial Responsibilities There are other regular responsibilities of the board that you will need to learn as you advance in your board service. The annual audit, which the school board needs to accept, can be a valuable window into your school district’s operations. But it’s hard to look through that window and see anything if you lack a general understanding of what the document does and what it is meant to do. The same holds true for your Long Range Facilities Plan, and your Comprehensive Maintenance Plan. Many endeavors will require you to make inquiries to gain, build and sustain your knowledge.  

Preparation is key. Your job is to come to the table prepared to the best of your ability to vote on the fiscal matters before the board.  This is somewhat different than preparing for your vote at the table. So, it is smart to pose your questions in advance of your board meetings. As a matter of practice, you should not hold all your questions for the public meeting.  Take the time to formulate clear, mission-driven questions, and as a best practice, be sure to copy your superintendent on all communications with the BA. 

As with any agenda item, discussion that happens at the board table may add to or change your or your fellow board members’ perspective, and that can be productive. But your superintendent or BA may not have at hand the information that is requested via questions that arise on-the-spot.  Getting the information you need before your board meetings and votes helps you and your board to be purposeful and efficient. 

Another word to the wise: Be prepared to listen! You might have preconceived notions of what you are going to learn, but on occasion, you may be surprised.  

In my own service on my local board, years ago, we had spent a good deal of discussion time on how resolutely our board and administration supported experiential learning and field trips. I was a bit dismayed, then, to see in our preliminary budget a much smaller allocation for field trips than I would have expected. So, I contacted my business administrator about it. Though I was expecting bad news, I was delighted to learn about all of the low- and no-cost field trips the district would be offering that year. On the less-than-sunny side, it can be discouraging to learn about the fiscal challenges your district faces in providing for your students.

To move your school district forward, it is important for your board and your administration to have and maintain a healthy partnership.  Optimal communication leads to and cements trust and is at the heart of all successful relationships. 

Because school district fiscal matters can be simultaneously high profile and esoteric, clarity in communications and trust surrounding these issues are especially important. To make your governance most effective, ask questions, be willing to learn and follow clear protocols that honor the chain of command and the superintendent’s leadership. 

Always act in accordance with the role of the board member and the board. Respect and encourage respect for the roles and for the work and workload of your school district’s superintendent and business administrator. Your district will be better governed, you will be better informed and you and your fellow board members will be better servants to all who rely on your school district — most especially, your students.

Kathleen Helewa is senior manager of the NJSBA Field Services Department.