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What does it take to be a school board member in Kentucky?
Kentucky School Advocate
January 2017
By Brad Hughes
KSBA Director of Member Support/Communications Services
Embedded Image for:  (20161219144554976_image.jpg) The KSBA Board of Directors has set educating Kentuckians about school board service as one of the association’s priorities. Our leaders want people to understand what board members can do, should do, better not do and are forbidden from messing around with.

In short, all the stuff that changed with passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, but about which a lot of folks don’t have a clue.

While that initiative will move from the drawing board into activities in 2017, Kentucky’s observation of January as School Board Recognition Month makes this a good time to devote a column to the subject. The fact that we begin the year with 146 first-time board members just makes the timing that much more appropriate.

To be clear, I won’t address areas like the legal age or education attainment, nepotism restrictions or conflicts of interest. Other association colleagues will go there through the broader initiative.

This is about what it takes inside a person to serve on a school board.

Listening, learning, leading
School board members are leaders for learning who can never stop learning. It may involve a regulatory or statutory change from Frankfort or Washington, D.C. Or a budget amendment caused by a funding cut or a grant opportunity. Or a program to address a student need that didn’t exist previously or that has grown to the point where action is needed. Continuous learning is a given.

Board members must trust as they never did before taking office. Many decisions are based on trusting recommendations of the superintendent; the finance officer; or the food service, technology or transportation directors. This also means board members must become expert in asking questions of the professionals they trust, ensuring they get the information they need to act.

Board members say “I’m sorry” far more often than “Sure. I’ll make it happen.” No single board member can assure anything. One-issue candidates for school board seats discover to their chagrin what a majority vote means. Board members must become adept at building coalitions to achieve goals…or learn the art of compromise. Board members absolutely have their hands tied on a litany of subjects for which their constituents want action – often on topics the board members completely support – but about which the General Assembly or Congress has ordered “hands off.”

Board members are “authorized” to raise local taxes, often because the previously referenced governmental bodies mandated without funding. Or because students’ academic needs require new assistance. Or because the community economy has gone south while the cost of salaries and benefits, technology, bus fuel, utilities, uniforms, band instruments, field trips, classroom materials and more seldom decline. Board members must balance students’ needs with constituent protests.

Board members make commitments of time far exceeding the monthly or even twice-a-month meetings. They are expected to be at school plays, honors celebrations, homecoming parades, opening days, graduations, athletic games, dedications, civic group meetings, state-required professional development classes, opportunities to lobby a legislator, visits to a school in another district to see a building or program – and any veteran board member could fill this entire page with additional examples.

Board members must be much more patient than many other elected officials because their constituency often is more passionate and more emotional with pleas or demands. No disrespect meant, but the pressure a city council member faces on a street project seldom measures up to the anxiety when a group of mothers wants a bus route changed for the safety of their children.

The Last Word
Of course, board members also get to stand on a stage and look into the eyes of a graduating senior accepting her or his diploma. Or witness an elementary student perform a science experiment or a school drama group interpret Shakespeare. Or swell with pride as a middle school Quick Recall team takes a championship. Or hear a teacher describe the learning impact for her students from a new resource. None of which might have occurred without the support of the local board of education.

These and many more aspects of school board service are messages worth getting out.
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