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Leadership Academy

A Texas district builds a cadre of district ambassadors and potential board members.

July, 2015 Ellen Jones and Faye Beaulieu

“It’s the most important job in our school district, and we’re leaving the field of candidates who run to fill those positions completely up to chance!” This is the realization that the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District (HEB) Board of Trustees came to in 2009-10, and it was not one with which we were comfortable.

As a continuous improvement district – more about that later – we insisted on succession plans for key positions in our administration, even conducting a program to produce a pool of potential campus leaders from among our teacher ranks. Yet, we had nothing in place to ensure that community leaders interested in running for a trustee seat could prepare for that via a structured program offering an opportunity to learn how the district operates, how to run for the board, and how to function successfully as a school board member.

These are the considerations that caused the board of HEB, a suburban district in north Texas, to design and conduct its first annual Leadership Academy in 2010. Our program is a six-month course whose purpose is to engage, educate, and inspire its local citizens to become educated district ambassadors.

Even if none of those who go through your Leadership Academy ever run for the board, you’ve developed a group of ambassadors who understand district operations, curriculum, special programs, school finance, and the state of the district’s facilities. That in itself is a treasure because it salts your community with people who can respond to questions and comments about your district in far more arenas than just your trustees can reach.

In those seasons when you’re preparing your constituents for a bond election, their help is extremely valuable. And if participation in the program does help some to decide to run for a board seat, you have the advantage of having genuinely knowledgeable candidates on your ballot.

A Lack of Knowledge

Our district of 22,000 students has always enjoyed broad community support in its 50-plus-year history, but the school board desired a deeper and more meaningful citizen engagement. A district survey in 2009 revealed our citizens gave the school district high marks but lacked a knowledge of board work and district processes. The board of trustees were quick to approve a board goal to begin a new program to correct this deficiency.

Our 27 campus principals were asked to nominate an individual to participate in this program. Current board members and central office staff also were asked to provide nominations. The 34 individuals who accepted the invitation committed to attending six meetings including an in-depth tour of the district throughout the course of the 2010-11 school year. In addition, participants were invited and encouraged to attend at least one of the regular school board meetings during the year to see the board in action.

The subject matter for each of the session’s six classes was carefully and thoughtfully planned to reflect what we felt our community most urgently needed to understand about the district. This approach can be readily adopted or customized to suit your community’s needs. Our meetings focus on the following components:

  1. Overview of board member roles and work
  2. HEB’s systems approach to our work – the continuous improvement philosophy
  3. Educational Operations
  4. Business Operations
  5. Tour of the District
  6. School Board Candidacy/Graduation

Continuous Improvement

The first meeting of our academy includes a meal prepared by the district’s culinary students. Current board members and administrators sit at small tables with participants in random fashion to encourage getting to know one another. Use of ice breakers and table discussions allowed participants to break down barriers and build camaraderie.

After dinner, a question-and-answer session occurs with current board members covering topics like trustee ethics and meeting preparation, operating procedures, governance versus management, roles of officers, and policies of the district. Each participant receives a canvas briefcase with district logo containing a portfolio with tablet and pen, a three-ring notebook with meeting details and a space for handouts, and a copy of the book Good to Great by Jim Collins. The book is suggested homework for the next session, as it provides a solid foundation in understanding the work processes of the district.

Continuous Improvement has been the systematic and systemic approach of running HEB ISD for the past decade. The second meeting provides an opportunity for participants to hear that history and take a look at how the district uses this approach from the boardroom to the classroom. This approach is the basis for all decisions and instruction in the district – and it works. Despite an economically challenged and very diverse constituency, our students’ academic success has consistently propelled the district to a top or near-the-top spot among the 1,000 districts in Texas over the past eight years.

Participants learn the importance of documenting processes and understand that using the tools of continuous improvement is a standard practice throughout the district. Each meeting of the academy concludes with a Plus/Delta Chart that allows us to capture the participants’ positive reactions to that meeting and their suggestions for improvements.

Educational Operations

Oftentimes community members are confused by the array of classes, testing, special education issues, and after-school activities offered by the district. Our third meeting provides an opportunity for our deputy superintendent of educational operations to have a dialogue with participants on these issues.

Using the class time to explain the recently changed graduation requirements and state accountability testing provides an excellent way to create ambassadors to explain this to others in the community. Detailing special education laws and requirements brings a better understanding for participants of this complex issue. Participants are encouraged to ask questions and steer the conversation to their needs. A fun, interactive approach is used to engage the participants.

Explaining Finances

School board members and administrators are well aware of how difficult it is to try to explain the financing of public schools. In our fourth session, our deputy superintendent of business operations carefully outlines our state and federal funding streams, as well as our local limitations on spending, to our participants. She moves through academic costs as well as operational costs, answering questions as she goes.

Without a doubt, this is a favorite session of participants, as they come away with a much clearer understanding of our district's finances. The obvious advantage of this meeting is that it produces knowledgeable citizens who can help explain to others the district's financial situation. We found that this paid off in the recent passing of a sizable bond election with a 70 percent approval.

Field Trip

While all other meetings of the academy are held on weeknights in our staff development center, the fifth meeting is held on a Saturday morning. Using a small school bus, the participants are shuttled around our 44-square-mile district to look at both operational and academic facilities.

Each year we’ve held the academy, we’ve found the tour to be an eye- opening experience for participants who, while familiar with their neighborhood schools, may never have realized the full breadth of the district or the many different types of facilities needed to run a district.

The tour is also an excellent opportunity to note future needs of the district, whether it is growing population or aging facilities.

New Ambassadors

The final meeting of the academy is the culminating event with another opportunity for participants to dine with current board members and central office staff in an informal setting. Each current board member is asked to provide answers to the following questions:

  1. Why did you decide to run for the board?
  2. How much time does it take to be a board member?
  3. How does serving on a school board impact your family?
  4. How did you plan your campaign and how much did it cost?
  5. What advice would you give someone who is interested in running for the board?

Participants are encouraged to ask questions of board members covering any issues left unanswered. A brief graduation ceremony is held at the conclusion of this meeting to present certificates and a small gift acknowledging their commitment to this academy. Each graduate is given the title of Ambassador of HEB ISD and is asked to consider different ways to continue to be involved in the district.

How Much Does It Cost?

At this point you may be wondering about costs. Before we share this answer, please know that our program budget was intentionally designed to fit our district and our needs. The budget can be adapted and still result in exceptional quality. For our district, we budget $10,000 for this program. The bulk of the funds covers the cost of the two dinners and the light snacks that we provide at every meeting. (We believe that if you feed them, they will come.) Additional costs include the welcome gifts that we provide in the first meeting and the certificates and gifts presented at “graduation.”

Additionally, we have the cost of a school bus and driver for the tour. All of this, however, can be scaled to fit your needs and resources. A local restaurant may want to step up and cater either or both of your celebration meals. Local merchants may want to underwrite the costs of the presentation gifts, or they may want to donate snacks for meetings. There are definitely ways to cut costs if budget is an issue.

Our board’s recent change to four-year terms from three-year terms to avoid conflict with state primary elections has resulted in our holding trustee elections every other year rather than every year. This has afforded us the opportunity to offer a different type of academy in these election years.

With a small number of academy graduates and other individuals whose desire to run for the board is known, this second-year academy provides in-depth discussions about board work and uses a case-study approach to provide participants a chance to “practice” making board decisions.

Participants divide into teams and visit surrounding districts’ board meetings to observe how those differ from HEB board meetings. This academy wraps up at the time of filing for school board elections.

We would welcome any questions you may have, so feel free to contact us at the email addresses provided. Our district website -- www.hebisd.edu -- can also give you more insight into our continuous improvement philosophy, as well as other detailed information about our district.

About the Author

Ellen Jones (EllenJones@hebisd.edu) is president of the Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD Board of Trustees, in Bedford, Texas. Faye Beaulieu (FayeBeaulieu@hebisd.edu) is a member of the HEB ISD Board of Trustees and the Immediate Past President of the Texas Association of School Boards.

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