Tuesday, December 23, 2014

School Board Governance and the Importance of Culture

Much has been written and debated about the role of today’s school boards and how board governance impacts student performance.  On the surface, it’s obvious that board actions dictate policies and practices that (should, at least) promote opportunities for students to excel.  But how does the way that the board goes about its business contribute and how important is culture in ensuring that these opportunities exist?

As the word implies, as trustees, we have numerous obligations to those who have elected us, ranging from fiscal management to overseeing the operations of the district.  But we are much more than that; we have been entrusted by our communities, parents and students to make decisions and to act in the best interests of those stakeholders; our culture is an essential element in doing so.  How well do we do in fulfilling those obligations?  Do we continuously act in a manner that keeps the well-being of the student at the forefront of all that we do, or do we let ourselves get sidetracked by other issues?

Following up on our year one “road trip” talking about the opportunities created by HB 5, Bobby J Rigues, Aledo ISD trustee, and I will be presenting at Winter Governance and both Summer Leadership Institutes, with our focus this year on school board governance.  We’ll be joined by Dr. Jamie Wilson, Superintendent of Denton ISD, a strong proponent of good board governance.  The discussion of school board governance is one that is grounded in state statute but our focus will be more on how culture and governance drive positive outcomes than the statutes themselves.

In upcoming blogs, we’ll start the discussion that leads up to these conferences.  So let’s look further at the culture of the district and the communities it serves.  When we were elected as trustees (there’s that word again!), the expectation was that we would have our hands on the pulse of the community.  But do we?  Do we know what is most important to our stakeholders?  Or are we operating in a vacuum, focusing solely on actions taken by the board and administration?  It certainly is possible for a district’s students to succeed without a culture of sound governance.  But I would argue that this is not sustainable long term.

So what are the elements of culture that promote sound governance?  I believe that it starts with communication and relationships.  What is the relationship between the superintendent and the board of trustees?  And what about the relationship among trustees?  Is it one of trust and sharing of information, or is it one where each trustee is focused solely on self-interests without consideration for doing what is best for students?  Good governance is a direct result of honest communications and trust among the entire team of eight.

We all like to think we are doing the best that we can and it’s likely that few are working to undermine the efforts of the district.  Challenge yourselves as a team of eight, however, to think “kids first” and openly share with one another personal values and beliefs that impact your district’s culture.  Good governance suggests that a sound culture will be the cornerstone of the success of students in your district.  And, remember, your students are depending on you to make sound decisions that reflect good governance; anything less leaves them potentially unable to fulfill their individual potential and promise.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Trustees and Parents – The Need to Inform and Engage

Bobby J Rigues, Aledo ISD trustee, founder of the Make Education a Priority grassroots initiative (now adopted by more than 60% of school districts in Texas), and my co-presenter at Winter Governance and SLI, recently wrote an op-ed piece that I think is worthy of discussion here.  While not directly relating to HB 5, which has largely been the subject of my blogs, he touches on a topic that is equally as critical to the success of our students, namely the active involvement of parents in their child’s education. 

Without simply republishing his article, while perhaps that would make sense, I do want to take the opportunity to note his key points and to offer my own thoughts on exactly what it means to us as trustees and as parents.  Implementation of HB 5 has brought about a heightened awareness of the need for all of us to focus on how we align the curriculum offered with the interests and aspirations of our students.  And who better to help both the schools and the students move in that direction than parents of our children.

Quoting from Bobby’s op-ed, “Elementary children are now exposed to new levels of rigorous learning. Middle school students are being introduced to the value of high school academic planning. High school students are now offered additional course choices to engage interest. Our sons and daughters will be graduating with diplomas reflecting a personal interest in their education.”  As trustees and parents, the obligation to align the student interests with curriculum and to meet the challenges of tomorrow lies not just with the schools but with us as well. 

Bobby further noted that the Texas Education Code defines ten objectives for public education, the first of which focuses on the role of the parent in public education.  TEC Sec. 4.001. (b) Objective 1 states; Parents will be full partners with educators in the education of their children.”  The key word here is “partners”, a concept that was also at the core of HB 5 when discussing community and student engagement.  Except that the Texas Education Code brings this obligation right into our own homes!  As Bobby noted, “If our children are the beneficiaries of learning, parents are the foundation of the delivery system known as public education.”

So how do we, as trustees and parents engage in partnerships with our public schools?  Not to oversimplify the response, but the first requirement is to ensure that the topic of public education stays on the radar of those elected to serve us.  In the 84th legislative session, we can expect to hear a great deal about charters, vouchers and other alternatives to public education.  Note that I did not use the phrase “school choice” since school choice, by definition, includes our public schools … but not without the active involvement of us as parents.

We can anticipate that public education will be a part of perhaps as many as 900 of the anticipated 5000-6000 bills to be filed during the upcoming session.  And while only about 12-15% of those will actually be signed into law, each and every bill put into law will impact public education, either positively or adversely.  So whether relating to curriculum, assessment and accountability, all elements of HB 5, or other topics such as school calendars and privacy, we all have a stake in the outcomes. 

As trustees and as parents, we have an obligation to inform and engage.  But it has to start with each of us understanding the need to do so and then taking steps to that end. It’s incumbent that we engage, not just because the Texas Education Code says we should, but because our children can only succeed with the active and ongoing involvement of those who provide the most fundamental element of the support structure for our children, all of us as parents.  Our kids are watching; let's not disappoint them!