2013 should be year to reintroduce school board service to Kentuckians
By Brad Hughes
KSBA Director of Member Support Services
As about 90 Heritage Elementary School fifth-graders looked on – in varying degrees of fidgety attention – Shelby County Board of Education member Allen Phillips took the oath of office in early January to begin his 25th year of board service. The event, pictured at left, repeated at two other elementary schools for other members’ oaths, was designed to engage students in a social studies lesson about school governance.
Phillips, retired Judge Mike Harrod and Superintendent James Neihof fielded questions such as: “What does a school board member do?,” “Who has served the longest?” and “Why do you have to do the oaths?”
The event isn’t unique in Kentucky, but the query by the student – “What does a school board member do?” – stuck in my mind alongside a recent conversation with a superintendent from another part of the state. He was lamenting that, despite the roles school board members have had since passage of the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act, so many people in his community still think board members hire and fire and take other actions that are no longer on their plates.
While my KSBA Board Team Development colleagues make a considerable effort to educate board members – especially newly elected and appointed leaders – on roles, requirements, prohibitions and related issues, the fact remains that many (too many, in my mind) Kentuckians are just as confused as the Heritage Elementary fifth-grader on what school board members do.
This would be an excellent year for local leaders to make a special effort to ramp up their constituents’ understanding of board service. Here are some communications ideas on how to achieve such a goal.
Keep it simple
The public doesn’t need a War and Peace version of school board service, but rather as Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday used to tell his TV show crime witnesses, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
Two documents on the KSBA website (http://www.ksba.org/) can be tremendous resources in developing a set of talking points on board member roles:
• Job Profile of a Kentucky School Board Member
• 5 Leadership Roles of the School Board
Another would be Chapter 2 of the KSBA School Board Leadership Guide – a copy of which is provided to every board member upon taking office. All three items are available on the KSBA website’s Board Team Development page in the Quick Links section on the right side.
Consider a presentation that mixes what school boards do and what they don’t do. If you run off a list of “We can’t do this and we can’t do that,” you could plant a thought like, “Why do we need a school board?”
Find an audience and start talking
Limiting that audience to the folks who show up at board meetings will also limit the educational impact.
Meetings of local chambers of commerce or other civic groups would get the message to opinion leaders. The same would apply to PTA meetings, where the already-engaged parents show up.
Even something as simple as a credit card-sized list to give to people on the roles of a board member – also including your phone number and email address – can become a lasting tool to tell your story.
The Last Word
No one has greater credibility to talk about what school boards do – and don’t do – than the men and women who offered their service on behalf of children. Every time you make the effort to enlighten even one person, you may avoid inaccurate assumptions, undoable expectations and unrealistic demands down the road.
And that’s a message worth getting out.