School boards are dominating the news these days, and I want to put my thoughts to paper on the importance of school boards and trustees.
By Jennifer Hall Lee
Trustees are responsible for overseeing the policies, programs, and finances of the school district, with the goal of ensuring that students receive a high-quality education.
They must practice good governance, which is an important yet subtle skill set. Governance is a system that involves cooperation and it requires a governance mindset. This mindset helps to form a partnership between the trustees and the superintendent that focuses on the health, well-being and academic success of every child.
The role of trustees and the superintendent is a collaborative one, even though the superintendent is the board’s only employee. When good governance is practiced on the board it enables both trustees and superintendents to work as a team with a common vision for the future of the district and for what is best for children.
Recently, a past trustee of Pasadena Unified School District used an interesting metaphor for school boards. He said that when a board is at its best it functions like a think tank. I liked that example because I have had that experience throughout my life; a team comes together to discuss a problem and when a governance mindset is in place the solutions that emerge benefit all.
Being in a think tank may not be for everyone, because an individual doesn’t always feel in control. The group as a whole actually becomes its own entity. An idea that is started by an individual trustee ultimately, after input by others, becomes a creation of the group.
A board that practices good governance is the antithesis of a top-down organization.
Everything the board and the superintendent do, as a governance team, affects children.
When the PUSD board, with the superintendent, decided that having every department focus on a commitment to literacy through academics … that was the result of good governance. So was the creation of the student think tank. The governance team was putting all of their efforts and ideas together to do what is best for all students.
In highly political times a board of trustees can devolve into a binary mindset that can relegate the board to small teams of winners and losers or majority versus minority.
Binary thinking hinders the board’s effectiveness, and we are seeing this in school boards across the nation such as a board in Orange County that has denied access to a library app for all students and circumvented respectful protocols to fire their superintendent. And in Denver, Colorado board trustees resigned due to the highly political nature of its board. In all of these examples the losers were children.
Some may disagree with me and say that the whole world is divided up into winners and losers and that is just the way it is. That has been true in a top down world, but I think this is probably why we have difficulty solving our most pressing problems. If everything is binary with only winners and losers then the winners one day become the losers and so on. On a school board with a binary mindset the focus on students and their educational experiences gets forgotten in the detritus of the zero sum game.
To be clear, trustees do cast votes and there are “winners and losers,” and yes, votes fall where they may, but if good governance is regularly cultivated, a solid foundation of trust and equality between trustees and the superintendent will benefit the academic achievements and the lives of all children.
Jennifer Hall Lee is a PUSD trustee and is speaking for herself.
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