Wednesday, October 06, 2021

School Board Governance

School Board Members Must Speak Out
Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette, October 6, 2021, p. A6

Returning to my Iowa City home from Washington, confronting appeals of friends who were teachers, I agreed to run for school board, won, but promised only one term.

Later, I tried to recruit new school board members. It wasn’t easy.

Perhaps it was my candid sales pitch: “Well, you may not get any pay, but at least you’ll get a lot of grief.”

We spend less on K-12 than other countries, and our economy grows faster than education spending. But our federal, state and local governments budget $734 billion for it annually -- roughly the size of the defense budget.

Given the responsibilities of school board members it’s remarkable they have neither entrance requirements nor training.

But then neither do presidential appointees.

Maritime Administrator at 29, and lacking administrative experience, I asked Commerce Secretary Luther Hodges about training. There was none. I pleaded for at least some advice. He said all I needed to remember was to pee every chance I got.

Iowa City’s much beloved librarian, Lolly Eggers, served as my school board campaign treasurer, and provided, as befits a librarian, a book: John Carver, Boards That Make a Difference. She had found it useful with her board. So did we.

As Carver puts it, most advice for boards just teaches “how to do the wrong things better.”

Our superintendent was preparing the board’s agenda, complete with what motions should be made and when. As I said at the time, “We don’t have board meetings, we have superintendent meetings to which the board members are invited and have the best seats.” We changed that, redefining the roles of board members and superintendents. [Photo credit unknown, possibly Nicholas Johnson; from blog post, "The School Bored."]

The Cedar Rapids school board’s Board Governance Policies bear some similarity to what we did 23 years ago.

Where they differ in practice involves the role of elected officials and group decision making. We made clear individual board members did not speak for the board. But they did speak -- and listen.

As FCC commissioner I wrote some 400 dissenting opinions. As a school board member, I wrote a newspaper column every two weeks about K-12 education. Sometimes painful for my colleagues, my writing was nonetheless tolerated as part of the group decision-making process.

One reason democracies have multi-person legislative bodies, appellate courts, commissions – and school boards – is the assumption groups produce better decisions than authoritarian dictators. When group members are elected officials, they have an added obligation to express their views, communicate with and represent constituents, to be a voice for the voiceless, an ear for the unheard.

There is not a single challenge confronting Iowa’s school boards that has not been discovered, diagnosed, treated, and resolved by one of America’s 16,800 school boards, or the 19 countries that outscore the U.S. for quality of K-12 education.

School board members need to spend hours regularly studying the literature, reporting, speaking out and stimulating discussion. That, and many other tasks, are things that cannot properly be delegated to a superintendent and board chair.
Nicholas Johnson is a former Iowa City school board member. See Contact:


[School Board. My term ran from 1998 to 2001.]

[K-12 expenditures. Melanie Hanson, “U.S. Public Education Spending Statistics,”, Aug. 2, 2021,]

[Defense Budget. “Budget Basics: National Defense,” Peter G. Peterson Foundation, Aug. 2, 2021, (“The United States spent $725 billion on national defense during fiscal year (FY) 2020 according to the Office of Management and Budget . . ..”)]

[Use of word “pee” in The Gazette; precedent. Adam Sullivan. 2021 headline: “Banning fake pee? In this economy?” The Gazette, Feb. 19, 2021, ]

[Lolly Eggers. Iowa City Public Library Librarian, served from 1975-95. “Iowa City Public Library celebrates legacy of Lolly Eggers, Former Library Director,” Press Release, Iowa City Public Library,” July 2, 2021,]

[Carver. Doing the wrong things better. John Carver, “Remaking Governance,” American School Board Journal, March 2000, p. 26,]

[Cedar Rapids School Board governance. “Article 2 Board Governance and Operations,” Cedar Rapids Community School District Policies and Procedures,”]

[Group decision making. Tim Barnett, “Group Decision Making,” Encyclopedia of Management, Reference for Business, ]

[Number of school boards. Imed Bouchrika, “101 American School Statistics: 2020/2021 Data, Trends & Predictions,” Education,, June 10, 2020, (“The U.S. is currently home to 16,800 school districts.”)]

[19 counties better than US education. “20 Best Education System in the World,” edsys, May 22, 2019,; Patricia Fioriello, “Top K-12 Education System in the World,” Critical Issues in Education, (“The top five K-12 education systems worldwide are as follows:” – the U.S. did not make the list)]

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