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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Back to Class: School Board Members Hit the Books

In order to understand their school, all new board members in this West Virginia district must go back to "school" themselves.
By Diane Curtis
Related Tags: Assessment,All Grades

At a June meeting of the Wood County School Board, board member David Kurtz, Superintendent Daniel Curry, and board president Judy Sjostedt wrestle with school district matters.

Credit: Mike Zinnen

Shortly after the exhilaration of political victory gives way to appreciation of the daunting task before them, all new school board members in West Virginia become students.

Classes are mandatory and include such subjects as school budgeting, conflict-of-interest laws, federal and state authority over education, and how to run a meeting. And though the facts gleaned from issues sessions are valuable, the relationships that spring from the gatherings bear just as much fruit.

David Kurtz, immediate past president of the West Virginia School Boards Association and a former member of the Wood County Board of Education in Parkersburg, was at his state's first required orientation in 1992, a five-day gathering in the bucolic Canaan Valley, where he learned the value of networks forged at training sessions. As a new school board member, he felt he had a responsibility to learn in detail about the schools he was charged with overseeing. But when he tried to visit individual campuses unannounced, the superintendent then in office objected, preferring long-planned group visits.

Fairly certain of the justness of his position but eager to hear about the experiences and perspectives of colleagues elsewhere, Kurtz contacted some of the veteran school board members he had met at the orientation. They affirmed his stand. In the end, the superintendent was forced to abide by an open-door policy when Kurtz led his local board in passing a resolution reaffirming the right of board members to visit schools.

Legislature Orders Instruction

Following the lead of states such as Georgia and Texas, West Virginia lawmakers passed a bill in 1990 that requires school board members to receive instruction on education issues and management techniques pertinent to their office. Howard O'Cull, executive director of the West Virginia School Boards Association, said the bill was preceded by a state study showing that though school boards' primary responsibility is to set policy, only 3 percent of their efforts were in that area. An outside advisory group also concluded that school boards spent too much time involved in day-to-day operations.

More than a dozen states now require school board members to attend a certain number of seminars, lectures, or conferences, either yearly or over the course of their time in office. Many states do not mandate training but encourage it as a way to get a better understanding of the varied and often complicated issues that dominate school board agendas -- from deciphering low state test scores to meeting the technology needs of students and dealing with a more violent society.

A number of school board organizations balk at the idea of mandatory training because of opposition to state requirements that don't come with funding or because they don't believe school board members should be singled out for instruction not required of other elected representatives. But most agree school board members can prosper from a deeper knowledge of the duties of their office and education issues.

Howard O’Cull, executive director of the West Virginia School Boards Association, has witnessed the benefits of formal instruction for members of his organization.

Credit: Howard O’Cull

Orientation Quickly Follows Elections

In West Virginia, a three-day orientation occurs shortly after the May elections for new board members and those who may have had a break in service. The trustees also are required to receive at least another seven hours of training for every year they are in office.

The West Virginia orientation typically provides a grounding in school finance and education law, including information on state and federal versus local responsibilities. It offers advice on how to run a board meeting, including a detailed seminar on Robert's Rules of Order and communication tips on dealing with the public, the media, the superintendent -- and each other. A recent orientation started with a talk from a veteran school board member on life in office, leadership styles, and the supreme importance of learning to work together as a group. A second speaker also emphasized the team dynamic.

The nonorientation training programs, which take place at least twice a year, usually focus on a main theme such as school safety, special education, religion in the schools, or board/superintendent relations. Some have been held through videoconferences so that board members need travel just across town or down the hall, not across the state.

Wood County board member Judy Sjostedt described the financial training as "very valuable," enhancing her ability to work with fellow board members to substantially increase the district's budget reserve and fund much-needed maintenance and capital-improvement projects. She also recalled that a session led by the superintendent and the school board president of the Colorado school district in which Columbine High School is located was both touching and informative and cemented her belief that large schools are too impersonal.

At a June meeting of the Wood County School Board, then- President Judy Sjostedt awards eleven-year-old Genevieve “Gene” Ashless the Kindest Kid in West Virginia Award. Ashless performed eighty-three acts of random kindness in two weeks to earn the award.

Credit: Mike Zinnen

Wise Use of Technology

Like Kurtz, Sjostedt values the collegiality of the seminars and the contacts she has made at them, both as an attendee and a lecturer. But she credits Kurtz with moving the networking aspect forward into the technological age.

Kurtz started a personal Web site that includes a vast amount of school board and education information as well as two email discussion groups. One discussion group is for anyone interested in Wood County education and another is exclusively for West Virginia school board members -- "where we let our hair down."

A school board member from the eastern panhandle can throw out a problem that may resonate with someone at the other end of the state who has dealt with the same issue and may be able to offer a solution. And board members are not limited by the time constraints of scheduled meetings only two or three times a year. They can log on to the Internet anytime day or night and expect responses almost immediately. "One person sharing his thoughts on a particular issue helps enlighten board members all across the state,'' says Kurtz.

As president of the West Virginia School Boards Association, David Kurtz was a leader in using the Internet to keep board members and the public informed about education issues.

Credit: Mike Zinnen

The Value of Email and Web Pages

School board leadership must include technology, believes Kurtz, whose knowledge and commonsense approach to bringing school governing bodies into the Digital Age has made him a popular source of technological expertise, both in West Virginia and nationally. "I really think that the idea of school board members helping bridge that gap between the school and community by emailing and Web pages and discussion groups really is the wave of the future," Kurtz says. "It's part of the changes that our democracy needs to make to better represent our constituencies and advocate on behalf of school issues."

Sending board members back to school has reaped huge benefits in terms of school board savvy and leadership, Kurtz sums up. "I'm very high on it. I think that education has become increasingly complex over the years. In order to be an effective school board member, you need to operate from a position of knowledge. It's only through this sort of training that you can really get the tools you need to make better decisions."

Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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