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KSBA News Article

Executive Insights

Kerri Schelling

Civility can help boards display ‘unity of purpose’

Kentucky School Advocate
November 2020

By Kerri Schelling
KSBA Executive Director

Election Day is now behind us. In a matter of weeks, newly elected school board members and successful incumbents alike begin their new terms, bound together by a shared commitment for their communities’ students and a sworn oath to serve the interests of the constituents who put them there. It’s a challenging proposition in the best of times, but with a global pandemic and staggering state budget cuts staring you in the face, it’s another reminder that 2020 is a year unlike any other. For those who have won or retained board seats, allow me to offer my congratulations. For those whose tenures on local school boards have come to an end, your association is sincerely grateful for your public service.

Anytime there is change on the school board – or staff, or any team for that matter – a new entity is created and it requires a new norming process to occur; a period of accommodation and assimilation that must happen if the board is to be functional. No matter the makeup of your team, historic challenges await you in the board room. Challenges that will require a renewed spirit of collaboration and a steady supply of empathy. Take this opportunity to think about the board team member you aspire to be in 2021. If you are a veteran school board member, what leadership traits will you model for new members? If you are entering your first term on the board, what leadership qualities do you expect from your new colleagues, and what behaviors do you want to be known for during your tenure? While there are many positive characteristics you could choose, start your list with civility.

It may seem simplistic; after all, showing respect and tolerance, being gracious and courteous, taking the high road and using good manners are things most people learn as young children. But studies have shown that incivility is on the rise in America and it comes at a high cost. For example, experiencing – or merely witnessing – a single act of incivility can lead customers to make negative assumptions about other employees, the organization and even the entire brand. Apply this research to the business of public education and the importance of civility on the school board is clear: what you say and how you say it will influence the public’s opinions of not just you as an individual, but the worth of the school board as a governance body, and ultimately the entire school district.

In “The Governance Core” by Davis Campbell and Michael Fullan, we read that “Governance is one of the few areas where participants have the option to choose how they will act without the overt pressure of external variables.” Displaying civility is a deliberate choice each board member has to make for him or herself. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be disagreement or tension, but if each member chooses civility, it allows the board to move forward with “unity of purpose.”

Unfortunately, civility has been severely lacking on the evening news and in our social media feeds. We are far more likely to learn what someone is against than what they are for, more likely to receive an insult than insights. We may not be able to control that, but we can commit not to contribute to it. The board room should be considered a safe space where shared purpose – not bitter divisiveness – is the focus of attention. It is the conscious decision to be civil that allows members of a school board to sit around the same table even when they are miles apart on an issue.

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