Leadership and School Boards: Guarding the Trust
reviewed by Casey Hurley - January 25, 2010
A recent web chat sponsored by Education Week and the Wallace Foundation asked, Are Local School Boards Obsolete? In Leadership and School Boards Laura Reimer answers by telling school boards that, if they want to be relevant, they must understand and embrace their proper governance role. The purpose of this book is to describe that role.
Leadership and School Boards speaks to board members and others in the voice of one who has been there. Reimer is a former school board member and currently an instructor at the University of Winnipeg.
She follows a pattern throughout the book arguing the importance of democratic, local, school board governance; admitting past school board failings; describing how they are supposed to perform their role; and identifying the principles that should guide this pursuit.
For example, she argues against the tendency of boards to meddle in daily operations by explaining that the superintendent is the school district leader. In chapter 8 she emphasizes this principle and clarifies how it guides good governance: In short, the entire school district bears the handprint of the superintendent, and it is through the superintendent that the board presses the local values into the school system (p. 99).
Each chapter has a title that describes what is happening to school boards, or what should be happening. In the first chapter, Losing Democracy: The Decline of Local Governance, Reimer describes the historical significance of school boards and the principles they were founded on, then she admits that school boards have not always been true to those principles.
Chapter 2 is Confused Democracy: Influences on the School Board. One of its main points is that clarity of purpose and a good reputation are keys to resisting the inappropriate influences swirling around school board deliberations.
Chapter 3, entitled Sustaining Democracy: Working Together, describes the political nature of school board governance. Boards must respond to many citizens, while being good stewards of public resources.
Chapter 4, Fighting for Democracy Beyond Mediocrity, is the longest chapter. It provides a good example of the pattern. Reimer begins by describing the principle of solving challenges together. She points out that problem solving comes with the opportunity to build trust. Although school boards have not always seen it this way, when they work together to address issues, they are taking the opportunity to be certain that they are a genuine liaison between the community and the school system (p. 35).
The next section of chapter 4 describes the good intentions and hard work of many school board members. Reimer wants boards to realize, however, that they must learn to govern (p. 37) together.
The longest section of chapter 4 addresses characteristics of effective school boards. These are (1) orientation, (2) vision, (3) perspective, (4) local values, (5) a collective role, (6) balance, (7) the board educates itself, (8) meeting for a purpose, and (9) agendas for a purpose. These characteristics are principles that should guide school board governance. Other principles are that authority is vested in the board, not individual board members, and that only the school board is elected to govern. This means the board must provide the vision and resources that enable others to educate.
The remaining five chapters are: Upholding Democracy; Building Democracy; Responsible Democracy; Active Democracy; and Reclaiming Democracy. They describe the areas in which school boards perform their governance role.
Chapter 5 discusses being accountable and holding others accountable through appropriate mission statements, knowing the law, and being ethical. Chapter 6 discusses the role of the school board chair and the political landscape of school board operations. Chapter 7 discusses policy development. Chapter 8 details potential pitfalls in the board-superintendent relationship. And Chapter 9 discusses the importance of building a positive culture.
My only concern about the book is that the chapter titles and subheadings are not as descriptive as they could be. That is why readers will do well to keep in mind the pattern described above. This book is an important read for school board members, teachers, school district employees, candidates for school boards, and all who want to understand the fundamental principles of school board governance.
The paradox that runs through the book is that its title claims a leadership role for the school board, but the text emphasizes that superintendents are the school district leaders. Readers will do well to keep this in mind, too; as Reimer explains that addressing this paradox keeps school boards on the right path.