Effective School Board Governance to Improve District Performance

by Cheryl White, Staff Associate II

Posted on May 16, 2017

Many research studies have been conducted to examine the characteristics of school boards in high-performing districts. These boards are shown to have distinctly different characteristics than low-performing districts, resulting in the conclusion that strong, effective school board governance impacts district performance. The role of a school board and its members extends beyond the legal obligations of a locally elected public official. The school board must exercise organizational leadership and demonstrate a commitment to setting and achieving goals. These influences have a direct impact on the successes or failures of a district. This article describes the leadership responsibilities of a school board and provides details for successfully executing these responsibilities.

A school board’s primary responsibilities as a governing body include (1) establishing a strategic direction, (2) ensuring sufficient resources and support, and (3) providing oversight.

Establishing a Strategic Direction

The school board should develop a clear, long-term strategic plan for the district that incorporates the district’s mission and values and sets the tone for the district’s commitment to integrity and ethics.

  • This plan should outline specific goals the district hopes to achieve, action steps needed to attain them and specific time frames in which to achieve them.
  • The board must identify issues that may be confronted in achieving goals and incorporate a course of action to overcome these obstacles.
  • The strategic plan should be the driving force for all of the district’s programs reflecting the consensus of the board, superintendent and management, district staff, and local constituents.

Ensuring Sufficient Resources and Support

The school board is responsible for ensuring the district has adequate financial resources, capable leadership and positive community relationships to support the district’s efforts in achieving goals and objectives set forth in the strategic plan.

  • The board should closely review and evaluate financial information to determine the financial condition of the district and whether the district’s financial operations can support the district’s objectives.
  • The board is responsible for establishing and maintaining an organizational structure that supports the district’s vision. This includes selecting a qualified superintendent and management staff, ensuring that management has implemented clear reporting lines and appropriate authorities and responsibilities, and adopting policies that facilitate the achievement of objectives.
  • The board should ensure that staff at all levels and board members continually engage in training and professional development in order to build skills and competencies necessary to accomplish goals.
  • School board members should also be active community leaders. The board should be able to communicate district policies, programs, financial condition and progress toward goals to the local community in order to foster support for the district’s goals. Building relationships with local constituents can play a vital role in the success or failure of voter-approved initiatives that impact the district.

Providing Oversight

The school board is accountable to local constituents for the performance of the district and must have a system in place to monitor and evaluate program operations, financial operations, risk management, and legal matters, as well as evaluating superintendent and management performance.

  • The board must evaluate the district’s progress toward achieving goals, and be able to communicate progress to the local community. It is important that board members are well versed in district operations in order to understand and be able to speak to why the district’s progress is favorable or unfavorable.
  • The board should establish an open and collaborative relationship with the superintendent and management that involves closely monitoring and evaluating budgetary and financial information to determine if adjustments need to be made to finances, operations or goals, or identify unusual activity.
  • The board should have a process in place to assess and identify risks (the possibility that an event will occur and adversely affect the achievement of an objective) and effectively manage risks in order to mitigate failures in achieving objectives.
  • The board must evaluate the superintendent and adopt policies for evaluating management and other personnel. Performance can affect the district’s ability to achieve objectives, so the board must use performance evaluations to identify deficiencies and set expectations.

Board members’ relationships with each other, as well as the superintendent, management, other staff, and the local community, have a significant impact on the school board’s effectiveness. In order for school boards to effectively carry out the responsibilities discussed above, it is necessary that board members focus on developing these relationships. Board members must have the ability to come to a consensus regarding the vision and objectives for the district, advocate for the district as credible and respected leaders in their communities, and foster a positive environment that promotes top performance from staff.