The opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina states, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The same might be said of school boards.
“If we’re doing it right, it’s pretty boring,” Fort Bend Independent School District Trustee Jim Rice said.
The school board for Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City ISD, which serves almost 15,500 students, was a finalist for the 2017 H-E-B Excellence in Education Outstanding School Board award. Fort Bend ISD, which serves over 74,500 students in Sugar Land, Tex., won the category. Members of both used the term “boring” to describe what a good school board should be.
“Most people get their ‘how politics work’ from watching television, but that’s not how it’s supposed to be,” SCUCISD Board President Gary Inmon said. “We have boringly transitioned into functioning the way you are supposed to.”
Both boards find their low-key functionality refreshing. Members of both boards can remember being enmeshed in the kind of micromanaging and chaos that can consume a school board when personality overtakes policy. Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, the problems were somewhat different, but the boards' secrets to success are strikingly similar to each other, and to other healthy boards.
Don’t Micromanage Your Superintendent
Aside from criminal behavior, and often because of it, micromanaging the superintendent might be the quickest path to dysfunction. When board members are looking out for interests other than the good of the district, they often begin to meddle in decisions down to the individual campus level.
“I think [superintendents] have one of the hardest jobs in the world,” Inmon said. “The last thing they need is a board to make it tougher.”
Even well-intentioned trustees can undermine superintendents and their staff if they don’t understand their job. Fort Bend ISD School Board President Kristin Tassin said she has to constantly remind constituents that her job is governance, not operations. That means she
is there to uphold standards and ensure that decisions align with the mission of the district. She doesn’t get involved in vetting vendors, selecting curriculum, or hiring school staff. Even though her passion for special education got her elected to the board, she lets the experts hired by the district decide how to deliver that service.
Of course, for the relationship to work, the district needs the right superintendent. When Rice was elected to the school board in 2010, Fort Bend was in distress. By 2012 the district had lost its superintendent and all but one of his executive team. The seven members of the board had a collective nine years of experience. They enlisted the help of the Center for the Reform of School Systems, who told them to think in terms of how to keep a superintendent at least 10 years to solidify meaningful policies. The average length of service for a superintendent in Texas is three years, on par with the national average. Fort Bend Superintendent Charles Dupre has been with the district since April 2013, and he has been very effective, Rice and Tassin said.
Superintendent Greg Gibson has been with SCUCISD for eight years. During that time, the relative tranquility of his tenure have allowed Gibson to build the trust needed to get district employees involved in decision-making. By the year 2022, he wants to see ownership of district initiatives and efforts extend all the way to the teachers in classrooms.
Working with this many employees, especially if you intend to engage and empower them, is complex enough, Gibson said. “There’s no sense in us creating that drama at the top.”
The best way to avoid boardroom drama is to build consensus ahead of time, according to Tassin.
“If our superintendent is doing his job, he’s bringing the best solution,” Tassin said.
When that happens consistently and board members have adequate information before the meeting, unanimous votes are not uncommon.
While the public may criticize such votes as “rubber stamping,” Inmon and Tassin both said that it is quite the opposite. Consistent unanimous votes signal that no private agendas are interfering with the clearest, best path forward. Where there’s not an obvious "best" path forward, it’s the job of the district staff to provide information to board members until they are satisfied with the solution.
Egos and politicking can cause a board to split into factions, while honest disagreement rarely does, Inmon explained.
Inmon has served on school boards and worked with other boards as a lawyer for the past
18 years. He understands the temptation to push an agenda or shortcut the process.
“A 4-3 split can achieve what [the faction] wants, but it’s not going to get the best result,” Inmon said. In the end, it creates discord that trickles down into the district and can affect kids if not checked.
Many board members also are tempted to bring forward a motion or an issue to “make a statement” in public, he said. Such behavior is a misunderstanding of the board’s role. “Although we get elected into the position, it’s not a political position,” Inmon said.
At the end of the day, seven people committed to a cause will have differences that are not easily reconciled. The SCUCISD board also recognizes that power struggles are always a possibility, and so it keeps the position of board president on a two-year rotation as a matter of policy.
“We’re no different than other boards," Inmon said. "We’re human beings.”
Inmon has sat on boards that were ruled by the “whim of the day,” he said. Whenever a board member went to a conference or saw a news story about another district, business as usual would screech to a halt while the board commissioned task forces, gathered data, and considered programs.
At the same time, innovation is beneficial, and both boards want a culture that encourages it.
The SCUCISD board always asks how a proposed new idea fits in with the direction the district is headed. They encourage parents and community members to familiarize themselves with the district's strategic plan, so that when they come to the board with ideas or desires, the conversation can begin on the same page.
Innovation is also more productive when the right people are on board, Tassin said. When board members and district executives trust each other, people are free to propose things that might seem risky or ambitious. If they can demonstrate how their ideas support the district's current direction, the Fort Bend board wants to see professionals think bigger and bolder without fear holding them back.
“We allow people to fail," Tassin said. "We want them trying new things.”
Communication and Transparency
When Fort Bend was looking for its new superintendent in 2012-13, one of their primary goals was to find someone who wanted to work with the community.
“It’s 2017, it’s not 1965," Rice said. The role of the school has changed from a de facto authority, to one of many influences on a child's learning. “Children are learning differently, they have access to so many different things. A superintendent has to be a leader of people. They have to be out in the community.”
The board found their man in Dupre, and building lines of the communication has been Fort Bend's highest priority.
“If we’re not talking, communicating, and engaging our community then you’re going to have breakdown in trust,” Tassin said.
The board has created a Citizens Leadership Academy to help community members learn more about the district. Whether or not they plan to run for a spot on the school board, it helps to have parent leaders and community members fully informed.
Involvement, while it does increase the work needed to build consensus, reduces drama, Gibson said. Rice agreed that it's worth the work of answering questions and responding to community concerns before everyone is too mad to hear your response.
In those efforts to share information and demonstrate transparency, Inmon also encourages members of the news media to ask questions as well to keep the board honest.
Boards need that self-check, because as one of the largest, if not the single largest employers in their area, many people want to buy contracts, promotions for family members, or other kinds of influence. Even taking emails directly from vendors bidding on district contracts muddies the waters, Tassin said. Keeping things in their proper channels builds trust.
“You have to get out in front of [the vendors] and let them know that your board has a high level of integrity,” Tassin said.
Reform in Action
For those who want to watch a board go through a transformation similar to the ones at SCUCISD and Fort Bend, look to San Antonio ISD.
After Christina Martinez was appointed to the SAISD school board recently, someone told her a joke: “How do you know when someone gets elected to the school board? Their car gets nicer.”
Martinez shuddered at what that joke says about how the community views school boards. She admits, however, that with controversy swirling around a few Bexar County school boards, it’s not a difficult conclusion to draw. She was appointed to replace board member Olga Hernandez, who was indicted on public corruption charges related to a federal bribery investigation involving district vendors.
Martinez’s experience on the SAISD school board has been positive, she said. The reform-minded board is committed to transparency and good governance. Its members work toward consensus and have given a strong backbone to the sweeping changes introduced by Superintendent Pedro Martinez. Many of their votes are now 7-0. They are, to put it simply, getting boring.