By Jennifer Wohlleb
With 123 new school board members in 91 school districts getting ready to begin their service this month, the plenary speaker at last month’s KSBA Winter Symposium in Louisville had some practical advice to help them get started.
Jim Burgett, a former school superintendent with more than 30 years’ experience, called being a good school board member an “art.”
PHOTO: Speaker Jim Burgett uses a winter symposium attendee to work through an example of good school board technique.
“This is not something you can do a checklist,” he said. “Yes, you can go through evaluations and trainings, and you need to, but that doesn’t make you a good board member. That makes you aware of the regulations and what you need to do.
“To be a good board member is an art. It’s an art because we deal with people, and when we deal with people you have to have the ability to be able to communicate, motivate, and inspire, educate and understand. That’s an art.”
Burgett shared several techniques for dealing with the public, especially when it comes to complaints and problems, as well as his top 10 rules for being a school board member (see chart below).
“Your most frequent dealing with the public is when someone comes up to you and ambushes you at Wal Mart or bowling – remember, 24/7 you’re on duty – and they come up to you and say, ‘Hey, Andrew, are you on the school board? Well, my daughter is in sixth grade … she missed three days of school and when she came back the teacher didn’t give her any time to make up her work …,’” he said. “How do you handle complaints?”
Burgett said there are two phases in these types of situations.
“The first step is when you receive the complaint … Step No. 2 is when you pass the complaint back,” he said. “Notice what I didn’t say? Notice I didn’t say step No. 2 is when you solve the complaint, because you don’t solve the complaint.”
In step one, Burgett urged board members to be C.A.L.M.: Compliment, Ask, Listen, and Mimic.
“The first thing you say is, ‘Hey, obviously this is on your mind. I appreciate the fact that you’re sharing it with me … and I know it is something that is of concern to you,’” he said.
“Whatever it is, you calm yourself down and say, ‘Thanks for sharing it with me.’
“Ask the chain (of command) question. It doesn’t mean put them on the spot, it means assume they know what they’re talking about. In this case it might be, ‘What did your daughter’s teacher say when you asked her about this problem?’ In other words, did you go to the right person to get this resolved?
“Listen, listen quietly, zip it up, don’t respond ... let them vent and get it all out.
“Mimic. Repeat what they told you in a paraphrase method.”
Step No. 2, he said, is to P.A.S.S.: Point them in the right direction, Avoid making promises or offering to solve the problem, Share the reason why you can’t, and Summarize the conversation back to the person to make sure you are both on the same page.
“A is the most important letter in both acronyms,” he said. “Avoid solving or promising any complaint that is given to you. Don’t solve it – you can’t; you are not the board, you are a board member. You don’t have single authority to solve anything. As a team member, you can bring it back to the team to try to solve it, but you have to avoid making promises. Don’t make promises that you can’t fulfill. You might not know all the reasons that something did happen, so don’t make promises to say it won’t happen again.”
Sharing also is an important step.
“Share the reason why you can’t help,” he said. You can say, “‘I’m one of five and if we want to do something, we have to do it collectively … and really what you need to do is take this problem back to where it started. I’m willing to be available to help set up that meeting. I can call the superintendent and have him set up that meeting with the teacher.’ That is the only thing you can promise, to call the superintendent, because that is the only person that you report to.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time they’re going to say, ‘No, no, I don’t want to call the superintendent.’”
Burgett also encouraged board members to share these types of interactions with their superintendent, in the form of a quick email.
“Because no superintendent should ever be surprised,” Burgett said. “And you’re telling them that maybe there is an issue in the public. You have followed the chain of command. Your job is to never go to the person involved in the complaint.”
Top 10 rules of school boarding
10. You only hire one person, the superintendent
9. Set goals for the superintendent. Set realistic goals and then give them resources.
8. Allow leaders to lead. Don’t micromanage.
7. Know the chain of command in your district
6. Know your role. You are one of five.
5. Be prepared
4. Understand ethics
3. Be a team member
2. Be honest, fair and kind
1. Love kids
— From the Art of School Boarding/Jim Burgett