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Is Your School Board Doing Its Job? A Quick Checklist from an Expert on Education Leadership and Policy

Release Date: January 27, 2010

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A few simple rules can help K-12 school boards function more effectively, says UB education expert Thomas Ramming.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Ask anyone familiar with the public drama: School boards provoke as much passion among their constituents as Congress. And it's easy to understand why, says Thomas Ramming, clinical assistant professor of educational leadership and policy in the University at Buffalo's Graduate School of Education.

"School boards help create the programs, services and opportunities that will allow our students to grow, and our communities and nation to thrive," Ramming says. They matter as much as larger governing bodies, he says, because their decisions so directly affect the people they are elected to serve.

That's all the more reason why they should function well, Ramming says. And often, dysfunctional school boards share similar problems.

A former Grand Island, N.Y., superintendent, Ramming has extensive hands-on experience with local school districts, particularly in the areas of collective bargaining and human resource management. He teaches aspiring educators in UB's Graduate School of Education studying to be superintendents, principals and other academic administrators.

Ramming has identified a quick-but-revealing checklist to help those outside the inner circles of public K-12 education determine the effectiveness of their school boards. By following these guidelines, Ramming says a school board will function better and have a much more positive impact on a school district -- without all the unnecessary drama.

Ramming's guidelines for good, well-functioning school boards:

No. 1: Does the school board understand its role as the primary policymaking body while allowing the district superintendent and his or her staff to administer the district? A properly functioning school board should avoid getting involved in the day-to-day operations of the school district. It should instead relay any concerns about day-to-day operations to the superintendent for resolutions.

No. 2: Does the school board understand that its authority comes from acting as a collective school board as opposed to individual board members feeling they have power on their own? This is consistent with the appropriate role of school boards, which are vested with rights and responsibilities -- but those rights and responsibilities do not flow to individual school board members. That authority comes from the board as a whole. It's an important distinction. No single individual has the authority to make any decisions or take any actions that affect the operation of the school district, Ramming points out.

No. 3: Do the school board members treat each other, as well as their constituents, with respect? Acrimony, gamesmanship and name-calling -- although far too common -- have no place in the governance of a school district.

No. 4: Does the school board have the interest of the students in mind while balancing those interests against the interests of taxpayers? Public schools were established to provide a quality education that would allow our state and nation to flourish. But not at all costs. And a well-operating school board understands that it must constantly balance student needs and costs.

No. 5: Is the school board interested, informed and knowledgeable about the role it is intended to serve? Good school board members should attend school events and community functions, and work to increase their training and awareness with regard to education and fiscal issues.

No. 6: Does the school board understand it has a fiduciary responsibility to protect the interest of taxpayers, short-term as well as long-term? When it considers the annual budget, that consideration must include impact on educational programs, as well as impact on the taxpayers. A good school board also makes sure the school budget protects the future fiscal integrity of the district.

No. 7: When working with the superintendent, does the school board set short-term and long-term goals for the district? There always should be measurable benchmarks to determine whether those goals are being met. And these goals should reflect the scope of the district, and include such areas as building maintenance and facilities, budget and finance, academic programs and student achievement. Are these goals clear and their progress monitored?

A frequent consultant for the Western New York Educational Service Council, Ramming specializes in strategic human resources planning, teacher/administrative evaluations and student achievement.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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Charles Anzalone
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anzalon@buffalo.edu