More than 140 new school board members will take their seats this month and they may be feeling just a bit dazed.
“At my first board meeting, I was scared to death,” said Nicholas County board member Sherry Uptegraft, looking back 20 years. “You have to get into your first meeting or two to actually get the feel.”
But where to start, with so much to learn about education in Kentucky, their local district and how they fit in the picture?
Get up to speed on as many aspects of board service as possible, but especially the district budget, said Powell County school board Chairwoman Diann Meadows, now in her 14th year. “I would advise them to go to the board office and talk to the financial officer about the codes and what they mean,” she said. “Just get a generalization of how the budget works and how MUNIS works and do that prior, if they can, to their first board meeting.”
Several new school board members attended KSBA’s Boot Camp
at last month’s Winter Symposium in Louisville, including (from left)
Logan County board member Teresa Hendrix and Todd County board
members Penny Withers and Floyd Henry.
Uptegraft said curriculum and academics also are important areas to look into initially. “See what the test scores are” and what the district is doing to prepare students to be college and career ready, she said.
KSBA’s online school governance manual, School Board Leadership Guide, is a good resource, Bardstown Independent school board member Kathy Reed said.
“Get as much education under your belt as you can about your local schools and school boards and education in general,” said Reed, a 27-year veteran. “The more you know, the more you’ll be able to make the decisions you have to make in the upcoming months.”
It’s important to understand the board member’s role, said Ohio County school board Chairman Jeff Evans, noting, “Don’t overstep your boundaries.”
One way to do this is to reach out to experienced board members, said Diane Hatfield, vice chairwoman of the Southgate Independent district board, who is employed working with federal programs in Newport Independent’s central office.
“Get some understanding of the expectations and the ground rules that the board operates under. You want to understand how things are communicated, where do you find information,” she said.
Hatfield, who has 15 years of service, is a fan of KSBA’s eMeeting service, which Southgate uses. She suggests new board members in systems that use the paperless meeting format “go back and get online and look at past agendas, look at past documents, so they get a feel for what is brought before the board.”
To a person, the experienced board members interviewed recommended taking advantage of KSBA’s training as soon as possible. Even before taking office, many new board members attended the association’s Winter Symposium last month, for which credit hours count toward their 2017 service.
“We got them signed up on their training immediately,” Meadows said of the Powell County district’s two newcomers.
“Get as many credit hours as they can possibly get right off the bat,” agreed Randall Stapleton, vice chairman of the Boyd County school board.
Science Hill Independent school board member Mike Elliott, with nearly three decades of service, said the early KSBA training opportunities can extend beyond the clinic meeting rooms to talking with board members from other districts and with exhibitors.
Listen and learn – and ask
“Just come in with a open mind, and not an agenda,” said Hart County school board Chairman William Belt, now in his 18th year. “From the outside, you really don’t know until you get in here what it’s about.”
Those first meetings can be a bit overwhelming, said Williamsburg Independent school board Chairman John Jeffries, a 19-year veteran.
“Ask lots of questions,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s not what I did, but it’s what I should have done. There are no stupid questions.”
Uptegraft recommended new board members develop good relationships with their more experienced peers. “Some of my best friends are right there on the board,” she said. “Be friends – talk to your older board members.”
Go into board service thinking, “What can I do to make a difference?” advised Ohio County’s Evans, in his 14th year.
Evans said while he was out and about in the community, he talked with students, teachers and local businesspeople, which helped give him a well-rounded view of the needs.
“Talk to parents and teachers and find out what’s really going on in their districts and where they think improvement needs to be,” agreed Stapleton, who just crossed the 16-year mark.
“And just be a very good listener,” said Hatfield, “as to what’s said by your constituents, and what’s said by your school administrators, and then what’s said by your other board members.”
It is important to visit the schools, Reed, of Bardstown, said, and be familiar with their leaders. “Visit the classes and see what conditions your schools are in because your focus is improving the learning conditions of your students,” she said.
Don’t expect expertise to come quickly, veterans warn.
“To be fair, it’ll take a year or two to really know what you’re doing,” Science Hill’s Elliott said. “There’s a lot to know and absorb – there’s more to it than some people think.”
Finances in particular will take some time, Stapleton said. “It’ll take a new board member four years to figure out the finances. It’s very complicated,” he said. “It took me four years to figure it out, before I really knew what was going on.”
Hatfield echoed that, saying, “I think that no matter how many years you’ve been on the board, it’s one that you have to stay up on and pay attention to, and you can always learn from that.”
The lesson that it takes time to learn the ins and outs of being a school board member also extends to the work itself. Reed has this observation for newcomers: “Anything you had hoped to accomplish by being elected to the school board is going to take time.”
Rolling out the welcome
One key to how quickly new board members learn their duties is found right at the board table. Experienced board members can do a lot to help – in setting an example, in sharing information and in their attitude.
Diann Meadows, chairwoman of the Powell County school board, said the panel’s two newly elected members were given copies of the district budget and most recent audit report even before taking office. They had been attending board meetings prior to the election.
Meadows said she has offered to meet with one board member and talked to the other “extensively, and tried to bring him in on everything we’re doing thus far … as chairman of the board, I felt like it was my responsibility to do that.” The superintendent has done the same, she said. “I also encourage them not just to ask me and the staff, but to talk to the other board members. It’s all of our responsibility to help them.”
Meadows cautioned, however, against sharing confidential information with the new members prior to their officially taking office.
John Jeffries, chairman of the Williamsburg Independent school board, planned to have dinner in December with one incoming new member, and hoped the other would be able to join them.
“Hopefully that will make him feel comfortable and a little more welcome,” he said.
Science Hill Independent board member Mike Elliott suggests taking a bit more time during meetings to provide a kind of play-by-play for a new board member.
“Just as we vote on things and discuss stuff, start from ground zero and tell him what we’re doing, where we’re going, what we’re voting on,” Elliott said. “Just give him a little background on each item on the agenda, instead of just approving it and going on. Give him an idea of why we’re doing it.”
Keep in mind that the learning is a two-way street, and new board members can help keep a board from becoming “stale,” said Nicholas County board member Sherry Uptegraft. “A lot of times the people that do come on are kind of gung-ho – they’re ready to roll with something because they’re new,” she said.