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10 Tips for Onboarding New Trustees

This article was provided to ACSA by Nancy Price.

November’s ballot will include many school board races across California, with challengers and incumbents vying to represent districts and set their mark on local education policy.

For a superintendent whose tenure begins only shortly before new trustees come on board and as well as longtime district chiefs, an election can shift the political sands, bringing new relationships and personalities to the table. Helping new board members hit the ground running will help smooth the transition.

The roles should be clear – the superintendent works for the board, and not the other way around. Failing to understand that can lead to conflict, lack of trust and miscommunications.

Your work with potential board members should begin even before voters cast their ballots, says Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators: “The superintendent should pay close attention to board candidates and ensure that their questions are answered regarding the district’s operations. Knowing each candidate’s platform and agenda will be beneficial should that candidate succeed in getting elected to the board.”

Once the dust of the election clears, there’s much that a superintendent can and should do to ensure a good working relationship with new board members. In particular, “It is crucial for the superintendent to establish positive and mutually respectful relationships with each board member,” Domenech says.

Here are some tips from Domenech and others that superintendents can employ to help new school board members:

  • Recommend that they undergo an orientation program, which among other things should help clarify roles as well as reinforce what board members need to know about state law and other matters. The California School Board Association (CSBA) offers a one-day orientation for newly elected school board members; this year’s is scheduled for Nov. 28 in San Francisco’s Moscone Center. If funding is tight, school boards can consider holding a local retreat or orientation session for new trustees.
  • After the election, the superintendent should meet individually with the new board members and brief them on the critical issues facing the school or district. Domenech recommends asking them to talk about issues that concern them and offering to be available at all times to answer their questions.
  • Extra effort to establish rapport can pay off. Tim Mills, then-superintendent of Washington’s Bellevue Public Schools, told District Administration magazine in April 2015 that he sat down once a month to have one-on-one conversations with board members, asking about their families and talking about the school district. “It’s really about me getting to understand their interests, their needs, how they feel that I, as a superintendent, can help them in their role. It is building that personal relationship with board members, which I think creates a great deal of trust.”
  • Make sure that new trustees know and understand that to be successful and to achieve goals, school board members should lead as a united team with the superintendent. Encourage them to take part in team development and training, as well as to attend school-based events. In addition, encourage them to get to know district staff, which is a hallmark of high-achieving school districts, according to research by the Center for Public Education.
  • Find out how the new school board member likes to receive communications. Some prefer email, others a telephone call or hard copy by snail mail.
  • Work with the school board chairman to promote teamwork by setting detailed ground rules for working together. “On-boarding new members with the board chair will also be the right step towards the development and maintenance of an effective and efficient board-superintendent management team,” Domenech recommends.
  • Disagreements will arise, and a superintendent can reassure new board members that it’s OK if they disagree with the superintendent or other board members. But emphasize the importance
  • of maintaining civility. Although they may be coming at an issue from different angles, they share a common goal: Working to provide the best education possible for kids.
  • Communications between the superintendent and board members must be timely, open, honest and frequent. Superintendents should encourage new board members to call them first when questions or issues arise, rather than initially turning to the news media or social media.
  • Likewise, the chief executive should never let the board be caught off guard. If you’re not already doing so, consider initiating a weekly or bi-monthly email letter to board members.
  • If information or data is requested by one board member, make sure to share it with all. J. Alvin Wilbanks, the longtime school superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia, told District Administration magazine in 2015, “Never let your board be surprised. Never let your board be embarrassed.”

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