The proper role of a public school board

Effective boards take full and final accountability for their districts

The Greek philosopher Diogenes was said to have walked about in the daylight with a lamp, seeking an honest man. If alive today, he might instead be seeking accountable school boards.

Whether there to serve and govern a traditional district or a charter academy (also a Michigan public school), school boards sometimes fall short of the performance we should expect of public officials entrusted with such important responsibilities.

Why? Here are but a few reasons ...

  • Because boards sometimes believe they are there to loyally support and defend the way things are — regardless of district or charter school performance.
  • Because boards sometimes believe they are just "volunteers" who really can't do much under such circumstance.
  • Because boards sometimes believe they are there to actually help run the operation, and end up lending an uninformed hand not much appreciated by those paid to do so.
  • Because those who engage in the "training" of board members typically focus on the protocols of office rather than the essentials of good governance, leading to the danger of emphasizing process over purpose and substance.
  • Because boards have not developed a sound understanding of the governance versus management distinction and why it is so essential to school success.

Even though a school board may fall short of fully accountable governance, the public often accepts the status quo. Yet the public isn't really much at fault. How can the public demand board accountability if history doesn't reveal what it should look like, or the board itself does not have a solid understanding of its governance responsibilities?

Fortunately, there is an effective means for righting the ship that needs righting. To that end, we suggest boards take the following steps:

  1. Officially adopt a substantive job description — it all starts there!

    Since governing boards, unlike other types (advisory, etc.), hold ultimate authority for the organization, a school board's job description should look something like this:

    "To make sure the school district or charter school is working as expected and as deserved by the public!"

    This job description, or one similar, focuses on the essence of governance — to take full and final local accountability for the performance of the district or charter school.

  2. Carry out that job by establishing (in concert with management) clear expectations for performance — encompassing, at a minimum, the areas of:
    • student achievement
    • management priorities
    • governance protocols
  3. Codify these expectations in concise and written form, monitor performance along the way and continually assess the outcomes.

  4. Avoid the temptation to meddle in administrative matters.

When a board follows this road map, it demonstrates accountability for its own performance and, more important, for the overall performance of the district or charter school it governs.

Regardless of any disagreement with the preceding observations and suggestions, perhaps all might agree it is time to fully recognize that school boards are in fact and by legal design the final point of education accountability at the local level.

Given their position, either by election (traditional districts) or appointment (charters), board members should be expected to show responsible leadership by governing effectively and standing ready to be held accountable for doing so.

Boards that govern well do so not by making countless final decisions that demonstrate their authority, but rather by serving as the leadership source that provides the overall vision, direction and accountability for public education at the local level. Such leadership is a true service to Michigan public school students and families.

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Bob Glees is the Executive Governance Consultant for the Michigan Association of Charter School Boards. He is a former elected school board member and has also held a number of executive positions in Michigan's public sector. MACSB can assist conventional and charter school boards on implementing and carrying out an accountable school governance model. For more information, please call 517-819-4777 or e-mail info@MACSB.org.