Home / Articles / Commentary / Guest Opinion / What’s a school board to do?
Print this Article
Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2010 11:25 am

What’s a school board to do?

This April, as they do every two years, the citizens of Illinois will elect about 3,000 of their neighbors to four-year terms on local school boards. About 1,300 are typically new to the board. The Illinois School Code lists two key eligibility requirements for school board members: They have to be U.S. citizens and residents of their districts for least one year before their elections. Nothing about training or background or education level. Just citizenship and residency.

It’s helpful to think about the work of school boards as essentially the work of citizens. They are residents who have been asked by their community to gather regularly and provide direction and guidance to the community’s schools. So what kind of conversations do these citizens have? And how does the citizen school board contribute to the success of their schools?

At best, a school board’s essential conversation is about what the community needs and expects from its public schools. The board member/citizens become, over time, informed community leaders. They serve as trustees – trustees who hold the district in trust for their entire community. While the board work is intimately connected to the work of the district’s professional staff, the board does not sit as amateur educators. They sit first as citizens.

In recent years there has been much thoughtful consideration regarding board governance. A particularly helpful effort is Governance as Leadership. In this volume, the authors Richard Chait, William Ryan and Barbara Taylor make a case for three types of governance and suggest that successful boards practice all three:

The foundational level is typically called fiduciary – are we being responsible and accountable with the resources the district has been given?

The second level is strategic – does the district have a focus, a direction and a path forward?

The third level they call generative – substantive conversation assuring the district has a clearly articulated identity, direction and purpose. Because it calls forth high-level reflection, generative work is a challenge for all boards. However, it is this aspect of school board governance for which citizens are most ideally suited.

Successful school districts have engaged substantive conversations enabling the district to clarify the purpose of their public schools:
  • What does our community want from its schools?
  • What do our students and their families want from the schools?
  • What values do we teach? What values do we live?
  • How can our schools remain accountable to the community for the mission with which they have been charged? How can our community and its schools stay connected?
  • What is the appropriate amount to spend on the educational task of the community?

Citizen-based perspective
To consistently do the kind of generative work required by the questions and answers above, today’s boards have to apply their citizen-based perspectives. Generative governance is about values – what our schools care about and what our districts are trying to do. Matters of fact are best left to the staff, yet board members are often tempted to engage in matters of fact because matters of fact are familiar to them in their non-board roles.

However, most issues of significance are based on values, not facts. The board is charged to do the values piece, and wise boards intentionally refrain from the facts work because they have confidence the staff will bring their professional expertise forward to properly confront and resolve the facts. Only the board has the community-based perspective necessary to effectively take on matters of value.

School boards in our American democracy are about balancing competing good values. We can never have too much liberty or too much equality. We can never have too much community or too much prosperity. However, most program decisions call for some effort to find the proper balance point between these competing values. The school board is the agency in the system where the value questions are addressed.

Values and facts
The contribution that the school board of citizens makes is an argument for local control – local determination about the shape of public education. To fulfill our democratic ideal, we need some fundamental outcomes from our public schools. In order to remain vital and free, our society must be educated, able to make informed decisions about government, and committed to democratic values. In our democracy, we elect a few citizen/leaders and charge them to see that it happens.

Illinois voters will have the opportunity in April 2011 to choose the citizens – incumbents and/or newcomers – that they believe will best represent their community values.

John J. Cassel (jcassel@iasb.com) of Oak Park is director, field services, for the Illinois Association of School Boards. Adapted from a December 2010 article in American School Board Journal.
Log in to use your Facebook account with

Login With Facebook Account

Recent Activity on IllinoisTimes


  • Thu
  • Fri
  • Sat
  • Sun
  • Mon
  • Tue
  • Wed