What I did on my summer vacation (Why board retreats are important)
By Sherry Johnson
I am always a little surprised when a community member asks me how my summer vacation “from board meetings” is going. Many people don’t understand that school governance happens all year long and most boards meet all year to support that role.
In July, Boards of Education have their re-organization meeting where they make important decisions about banks, attorneys and appointments for district personnel to transition the school district into their new year. At that meeting newly and re-elected board members take their oath of office.
During the summer, boards are able get detailed updates on student performance and other measurements of their district’s progress. They use this time to develop goals for the coming year. It is also during this summer time frame that school boards may choose to have a retreat.
Boards of Education have retreats for a number of reasons and many are the same reasons one would go on a faith, marriage or self-introspection retreat. Boards are made up of 5, 7, or 9 individual members, all elected by their communities to represent them at the table of school leadership. That role is multi-faceted, extremely complex and ever evolving. To know it well and to keep up with the demands takes more than comprehending information from a meeting packet and coming to the meeting with a decision in mind. Working with other members who have different backgrounds, different approaches to problem solving, and different priorities can stress the relationship that members have with each other and their superintendent. New board members change whatever dynamic previously existed within that structure. Retreats allow for everyone to come together outside of regular business meetings and develop into an effective leadership team.
Many boards hire outside consultants to help with specific issues, including relationship issues. Others will use local or district folks who are trained in a particular topic that the board would like addressed. This year we asked the MCSBA Executive Director, Jody Siegle to come and speak to us about the importance of advocacy and what we can expect this fall both legislatively and from the State Education Department. For our own self-reflection, we asked a local school attorney, himself a former board member with many years experience, to help us become a more cohesive team. He had us take a survey to identify what our individual expectations were and where we thought things could improve. He used the results of that survey along with a team building exercise to guide us through the process. In the end, as a board, we had a heightened awareness of all we had accomplished together during the course of the year together and we felt confident that we could continue to work even more effectively to help the district achieve the goals we defined for the coming year.
Self-reflection for Boards of Educations should not be overlooked or taken lightly. Board members are only effective when they work as partners; it takes effort to keep a team highly functional.
As the new school year begins, just like a fresh box of crayons and a clean pad of paper, hope springs inspired by the possibilities of what could be for our students, our schools and our communities. Effective Board leadership can make those possibilities real but success will require each person to accept his or her responsibility as a member of a leadership team working together to meet the many challenges that school governance requires of them.