School boards are hugely important elected bodies that have the ultimate responsibility for providing a good education for children in their districts. More than just legislative bodies, like city councils or police juries, school boards have full financial and governing authority and set the academic goals and expectations for the district.
They have the sole responsibility to hire the superintendent, adopt guiding policies, approve the budget, and hold their executive and themselves publicly accountable for how well their students are achieving.
School boards oversee huge and complex enterprises and must deal with a variety of important issues. In Louisiana, they are often the largest employer in a parish and they oversee the expenditure of millions of state and local taxpayer dollars. That’s why it’s critical that school board members clearly understand their roles and responsibilities as well as the limitations of their authority.
National best practices suggest a number of characteristics of effective school boards. Among other things, they:
- Establish the vision, expectations and goals for public education in their school district.
- Hire an effective superintendent whom they evaluate and hold accountable for results.
- Govern through policy and do not micromanage the school district’s staff.
- Focus on academic results and routinely evaluate the progress and improvement of schools.
- Ask pertinent questions about things such as student and school performance, achievement gaps, chronically low-performing schools, dropout issues, and school choices for students to help them excel.
- Make decisions based on data and research and keep abreast of innovative and effective school improvement strategies around the state and country.
- Act as an advocate for forward-looking public education initiatives that support a vital local economy and work with the community to build support for public education.
- Build consensus and show support for policies adopted by the board, even if individual members disagree.
As these best practices suggest, school board members should remain focused on the big picture and not micromanage the day-to-day operations and personnel matters of the school district. Individual members have no executive authority by themselves. And yet, we know all to well that this is a major issue with many school boards across the state. John Carver, the creator of a national policy governance model, puts it this way:
It is the board’s responsibility to govern. Individual board members do not. Hence, a (superintendent) is bound by what the board says, but never by what any board member says. A board should pledge to its (superintendent) that it will never hold him or her accountable for keeping board members happy as individuals and will never hold him or her accountable for any criteria except those expressed officially by the full board.
This year CABL helped pass legislation that makes interference in personnel matters by individual school board members illegal. It is an issue that voters should be keenly aware of. School boards are an essential part of the public education system in our state. More than ever, Louisiana needs effective school boards with members who understand their proper responsibilities, function as a team and put politics aside to focus on improving educational opportunities for all students. Only then can we have reasonable expectations of attaining the higher school and student performance that is needed in our state.