Wednesday, August 19, 2009

School Board Members' Advice

August 19, 2009, 1:50 p.m.
For other, related, blog entries, see:

Nicholas Johnson, "School Board Governance: First Things First; School Board Forum Producers Charis-Carlson and Yates Create Hit, But Where Was Candidates' Awareness of "Job One": Their Governance Model?" September 4, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "IC School Board Needs Fresh Thinking; Swisher Starting Dialogue,"

Nicholas Johnson, "School Boundaries Consultant Folly; Tough Boundary Questions Are for Board, Not Consultants or Superintendent, Plus: What Consultant Could Do," August 28, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "School Board Members' Advice; So You Want to be a School Board Member," August 19, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "UI VPs and ICCSD Consultants; Concerns About Consultants and Vice Presidents," August 14, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "Cluster Schools: Potential for IC District?" June 3, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "School Boundaries; Tonight's Schools Meeting and the more to come,"
March 30, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, " Demolition Disaster; Come Let Us Reason Together," March 10, 2009 (contains links to additional sources);

Nicholas Johnson," Roosevelt: Valuing Our Schools; Process and Substance in School Facilities Decisionmaking," March 9, 2009 (contains "Earlier, Related Writing" section with links to seven additional sources).
So You Want to be a School Board Member
(brought to you by*)

The Iowa City Community School District school board election is coming up September 8. This morning's Press-Citizen is devoted to some advice to the candidates -- and those citizens who will be choosing from among them. I was pleased to have been included among the former school board members asked to contribute.

(1) I believe the former board members' comments will be worth reading by school board members, and candidates, in other school districts as well. And, as the paper's editorial observes, (2) it's remarkable how much agreement there is among the five columnists -- none of whom saw the other columns before this morning (so far as I know).

Those columns follow, starting with my own (blogger's privilege), and concluding with the Press-Citizen's editorial.

Nicholas Johnson, "Board Members Won't be Universally Beloved, So Don't Try to be; There's a Board Because Supposedly Seven Heads Are Better than One. Unanimous Votes Defeat that Purpose," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 19, 2009, p. A11.

The editor asks: "What does it take to be a good school board member?" -- in 300 words or fewer.

For a few more words than that from my school board years see, "Nicholas Johnson's Writing on Education Issues, 1998-2001," which is available at, and includes links to this year's pieces.

Meanwhile, in short:

Avoid either micro-managing or rubber-stamping the superintendent. He's not a member of your board and you're not the superintendent. Maintain separation; you each have very different jobs to do.

Here's how.

Process, procedure, goals, metrics, management information reporting systems. Your first responsibility is not substantive issues (such as boundaries and buildings). It's devising the governance model your board will live by.

I prefer John Carver's approach. If you don't, fine. Find another. Thinking through governance is hard work, but it's your job.

Don't hand off board decisions to "consultants." That's what you're elected to decide.

Data, innovation, analysis, research. Nearly everything you need to know is on the Internet. With 15,000 school districts, there are few challenges you'll confront that haven't been identified, addressed, resolved and Web-posted by at least one of them. Plan to spend hours each week with the online K-12 trade journals and reports from governments, other districts, foundations and academics.

Don't keep one eye on re-election. You won't be universally beloved, so don't try. Speak up. Write out your suggestions and dissents. There's a board because supposedly seven heads are better than one. Unanimous votes defeat that purpose.

Listen, interact, and satisfy parents' concerns when warranted. But you can't fulfill their every wish. You have an equal responsibility to the entire district, including its unrepresented and unheard. Parents paying, say, $25,000 a year for private education can rightfully demand more control. But ours is a free public, not private, school system paid for by taxpayers.
Nicholas Johnson is a former School Board member (1998-2001) who teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law and maintains the blogs and

Liz Crooks, "Remember, Board members Are Responsible for the Whole District," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 19, 2009, p. A11.

On Sept. 8, voters in the Iowa City School District will choose from a slate of candidates on the school board ballot.

Voters will have an opportunity to choose wisely and exercise an informed vote. Many factors must be taken into consideration.

• First and foremost, I want to know a candidate can be an effective board member.

New board members can hit the ground running by understanding board policy and procedure. The best idea goes nowhere without the ability to work within the existing governance structure. In the Iowa City School District that means the Carver policy governance.

In no way does this mean a board member is a rubber stamp.

It means he or she understands that it is the board's role to focus on larger issues, to delegate clearly, to oversee management without meddling, to rigorously evaluate the performance of the organization.

In short, to lead the school district.

• Also important is the ability to keep issues from putting a strain on relationships with other board members, school administrators, parents, teachers and residents. Board members serve for four or more years, working alongside these groups on a range of issues.

Board members do not agree on every issue. A well-functioning board has a diversity of opinions. Board members must treat each other with respect, making every attempt to understand each other's vision for the district.

Single-issue candidates ultimately serve no one well, not even their interest group. By concentrating on a single issue, a board member can lose sight of the big picture. Even when advocating for a specific issue, it is important to work effectively to advance a vision for all the children of the district.

Voters need to remember board members are responsible for more than 11,000 children, not just one child, one building or even one side of the river.
Liz Crooks was a member of the Iowa City School Board from 2005 to 2008.

Laura Reece Flaum, "Are We All On Board with the Role We Want Board Members to Fill?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 19, 2009, p. A11.

As a community, I believe we could use a primer on the question, "What is school board service anyway?"

Before we're lost in the details of a new high school here or there, a boundary change this way or that way, these kids, that tax, those tests, let's discuss what functions we want our school board to serve. And let's clarify the job description of the individual board member. A board won't be effective until there is mutual agreement among its members as to what it is they're supposed to be doing both separately and together.

Does the board serve the interests -- however competing -- of the electorate? Does it serve the administration? Is it a bridge between the two? Or, as our elected officials, does the board drive the district, reflecting community values through the creation of policy, leaving the management of those policies to the administration?

Since the Iowa City School District does not have a "ward system," do individual board members inadvertently represent the schools their children attend and neighborhoods they live in, or does each board member represent the entire community? Is there an inherent conflict of interest having school board members with children enrolled in the district?

How can we most effectively be heard by those we've voted into office?

Answering these and other fundamental questions should be part of the election process.

It's often said that school boards are the most powerful forms of government because the decisions they make hit closest to home. Anyone affected by a boundary change or school closing will attest to that power. So let's make sure that we're all on board with the role we expect our elected officials to fulfill.

Only then can we elect them responsibly, know what to expect from them, and determine how well they are doing their jobs.
Lauren Reece Flaum served on the Iowa City School Board from 1999-2005. She served as board president from 2001-04.

Matt Goodlaxson, "Thankless Job in which You Meet Good People," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 19, 2009, p. A11.

When I was first voted onto the Iowa City School Board in 1998, I read a lot of books on education.

I was trying to learn best practices and wanted to know it all as quickly as possible. I wanted to help "reform" what was taking place in the district.

I learned that knowing my values was more important than trying to know education. I brought a unique life experience with me, and it had little to do with education.

I learned I was a part of a governing body that was directing professionals to educate our children.

I found that envisioning what I wanted our children to end up as, when they leave the school district, needed to be my guide when thinking of rules and guidelines that we wanted the administration to follow.

Administrators are hired for their level of knowledge and competence, I learned to trust that. I found my job was to guide them with what the community wants, needs and expects for our children.

If I had any success as a school board member, it came from listening, processing and always responding to individuals as they came to me or the board to share ideas. Even when I disagreed with them.

I tried hard to consider every student when decisions were made. We are not a homogenous population, I tried to remember that there are those who have differing needs within our community, I tried to remember that when we voted.

It is not easy, serving on a school board. It can be frustrating and thankless yet it also can be be a lot of fun and rewarding. I met a lot of interesting, caring people.

I believe my life was enriched by serving on the Iowa City School Board.

Matthew Goodlaxson served on the Iowa City School Board from 1998 to 2004.

Aletia Morgan, "Looking for Good School Board Members; Board Members Must be Constructive Curmudgeons Who Question Authority," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 19, 2009, p. A11.

This year is the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, and the generation that gave us the phrase "Question authority." As we approach the election for new members of the Iowa City School Board, I would encourage those running for the board to adopt this classic mindset.

Why? Being an effective school board member requires a willingness to question authority, even as you take on the role of an authority figure in the district. Board members should strongly support our schools and our community. But support doesn't mean always nodding your head yes.

Board members need to be willing to ask questions -- of the administration, of faculty, of staff and of the community. At the same time, they also must welcome and be responsive to questions asked of them. This constructive sharing of information can encourage a sense of transparency between the district administration and the community, with the Board as an agent of communication.

Unlike at Woodstock, not everyone sees the world through the same lens. People have different concerns and situations. Thus it is imperative that board members make the effort to learn about district operations in some detail to understand these varying perspectives. But no part-time board member can be an expert in everything. So, spend the time to develop expertise in a few areas that will allow you to make sense of the sometimes conflicting information typical of a complex environment such as the district. Become a constructive curmudgeon.

How do you do this?

• First, you have to commit the time. Don't run if you can't.

• Second, do your own independent research. Pay careful attention to what you receive from the administration, but take the time to learn more about the issues that correspond to your chosen areas of expertise.

• Third, use this knowledge to understand why there might be differing perspectives on an issue. The administration's initial recommendation may not always be right -- but your first response might not be, either.

I don't want to encourage cynicism, but you should recognize that every constituency has its own perspectives and its own set of goals. Accept that most people are trying to do the right thing -- as they see it.

For example, most of your information will come from the administration, which has its own priorities, which may include minimizing controversy and maximizing ease of implementation. You might need to encourage the administration (and your fellow board members) to take chances. Doing what's right isn't always the easy option.

So in the end, don't be afraid to assert yourself if you've done your research and understand the issue. Constant unanimity is not necessarily a good thing and may even be viewed with suspicion by the public. In fact, we may all be better served by constructive disagreement among well-prepared board members.

People who run for the board are nearly always well-intentioned. But good intentions only get you so far. A strong board member must commit the time to be well-prepared, must seek to encourage clear discussions of the issues, and must always be willing to question authority.

Aletia Morgan is the director of the Information Technology Group of the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She served as a member of the Iowa City School Board from 2003-2006 and on the Board of Education of the Hillsborough Township (N.J.) Public Schools from 1992 to 1996.

Editorial, "What We Need From Our Board Members," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 19, 2009, p. A10.

There's a common theme in today's guest columns from former Iowa City School Board members: The residents of the Iowa City School District don't go to the polls to elect a seven-member board that votes unanimously; they vote for individual people to serve on a board in which each member is asked to contribute his or her strengths and insight.

School board members should never sit back and go with the herd -- despite pressure put on them by their colleagues, despite how inevitable the administration's initial recommendation may seem.

On Sept. 8, district voters will go to the polls and elect three of the six remaining candidates to the Iowa City School Board: April Armstrong, Mike Cooper, Tuyet Dorau, Anne Johnson, Jean Jordison and Sarah Swisher. Today's columns suggest the candidates need to start considering several key pieces of advice:

• "Question authority."

• "Board members should strongly support our schools and our community. But support doesn't mean always nodding your head yes."

• "Become a constructive curmudgeon."

• "We may all be better served by constructive disagreement from well-prepared board members."

• "A board won't be effective until there is mutual agreement among its members as to what it is they're supposed to be doing both separately and together."

• "Speak up."

• "Write out your suggestions and dissents."

• "In no way does this mean a board member is a rubber stamp."

• "If I had any success as a school board member, it came from listening, processing and always responding to individuals as they came to me or the board to share ideas."

We suggest the candidates also keep in mind the slogan that former board member Nick Johnson tosses out regularly on his blog: "None of us is as dumb as all of us."

After all, groupthink will never be an adequate substitute for good leadership.

And at a time when the Iowa City School District is facing some momentous decisions -- including what to do with the Roosevelt building, how to bring online the district's first new comprehensive high school in four decades, how to slash millions from the budget and how to redraw school boundaries districtwide -- we need school board members who are ready to challenge "the way we've always done it."

We need board members who recognize that -- while the district has a group of well-qualified, dedicated professionals managing its day-to-day operations -- the district also has an organizational structure that doesn't allow constructive criticism to rise freely from those teaching in the trenches to reach those sitting in the administrative offices.

We need board members who are ready to walk the line between unnecessarily trying to micromanage staff and uncritically agreeing with every recommendation made by staff.

And we need these people to commit to this task for at least four years -- with no possibility for financial reward and with little to no chance of ever hearing the words, "Thank you."

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson
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