By Madelynn Coldiron
For more than a year, Kentucky school boards have focused on college and career readiness – and ultimate success – for their students.
School Board Recognition Month in January provides an opportunity to turn that focus around. What skills do school board members need to prepare themselves to be successful in their own role? Are they learned skills or innate characteristics – or some of both?
Having a desire to learn is fundamental, said Kim Terrell, chairwoman of the Ballard County school board.
“You have to be willing to put in the extra hours to educate yourself,” she said. “You cannot continually rely on other people to spoon feed you information. You actually have to read policy. You need to – as a new board member and a seasoned board member – continue professional development, like KSBA offers. You need a strong ability to look at a bigger picture than just the parts – to see the whole.”
Being well-informed is important to be an effective board member, said Kathleen Price, chairwoman of the Martin County school board.
“Knowledge would always be No. 1 – being knowledgeable about what’s going on in our school system, what our children need to be up to date and keeping up with everything else that’s going on,” she explained.
That includes not only information within the school district, Price added, but from the community, such as knowing what local employers need from the district’s graduates.
Some board members have a vocational background that automatically gives them useful skills in their elected role. Somerset Independent board Chairman Jeff Adams said he was new to school governance when he took office, but his business skills gave him general knowledge that carries over into what the board does.
“My background is in business management and I use these tools in dealing with people and making decisions and looking at budgets, focusing on the best possible outcomes considering the situations and constraints you have to deal with,” he said.
Wolfe County board Chairwoman Susan Cable, who owns an insurance agency, said she uses her business skills in analyzing testing and financial data.
Cable said she understands testing data more easily than school district finances, which use a specialized and complex accounting system.
“I think it’s really helpful to have some of that before you go on the board,” she said, adding that training can bring others up to speed.
“Most of the skills that we need we get through KSBA’s training, and as you go along you pick up on different things,” said Dayton Independent board Chairman John Hall. “Experience kind of guides you as you go along.”
Hall said he also gets help from fellow board members, who include a former principal, former teacher and an ex-guidance counselor.
Keeping skills fresh and continuing to learn is important in any occupation, including school board membership, Terrell said.
“That’s what I tell students,” she said. “Today’s society demands that we all be continuous learners, regardless of the position you hold.”
It’s not easy to keep up with changes in education, Price noted. “It seems like no more than we get one thing done, that it changes,” she said.
Social skills are key in being prepared to interact with fellow board members and district stakeholders, said Fairview Independent board Chairman Jeffrey Preston.
“Being able to interact and able to have communication skills,” he said. “Do away with texting, do away with the iPhones; pick up the telephone and talk to someone, go out and visit. Sit down and talk to people, sit down and talk to your superintendent, your teachers and financial people.”
The flip side of that skill is listening, Adams said, “being a good listener, being pragmatic in trying to deal with situations, trying to get information from all sides of an issue.”
Burgin Independent’s Robert Clark agrees that communication and people skills are important. As board chairman, he said people skills are needed “when it comes to drawing out the strengths of individual board members and their thoughts on issues.”
Clark works in the insurance field, but his fellow board members are a manufacturing employee, a person who works with the budget of a small college, a homemaker and a pro fisherman.
“Everybody looks at an issue from a different perspective, and I think that’s invaluable,” Clark said.
Crittenden County board Chairman Chris Cook pointed to a quality that permeates all the others.
“The very first skill – and I don’t even know if you could call it a skill – and that is you’ve got to have a true heart for children. If you don’t have that you don’t need to be on the school board,” he said.
Cook said this can manifest itself in everything from the board making decisions on what’s best for the whole child to the ways in which individual board members interact with students. Several Crittenden County board members mentor students, he said, while students are the focus at the district’s biannual Council of Councils meetings.
“Our actions and our words reflect that we are there to listen to our students and let them tell us what is good in their schools and what needs to improve,” Cook said.