School boards as leadership role models

by Thomas J. Gentzel, Executive Director NSBA

Perhaps there is simply too much to do, with more work than time to do it. Maybe we are a country overloaded with priorities: not sure what should be at the top of our collective to-do list, so we shift continuously from one topic to another. There certainly is no shortage of problems to address. Who can expect us to deal with all of them?

For whatever the reason, the public policy agenda is replete with carry-over items and unfinished business. Deferring decisions to another day often is the course most likely to attract the broadest agreement. This frequently is referred to as “kicking the can down the road”—an apt expression but probably not the most accurate one. We could only wish that just one can was involved. In the real world, lots of issues demand attention. Many of these have waited years to be considered, some pending for so long they now are but a distant memory.

The better metaphor, I think, is of a virtual snowplow that not only pushes matters down a road but, in the process, inevitably shoves many of them off to the side. The choice to defer action suggests the topic will be dealt with at some future time. Too often, however, it means the concern will be neglected, forgotten, or worse, allowed to fester and grow until it becomes completely unwieldy.

We are reminded of this as we watch elected officials in Washington and the state capitals, where we frequently see critical issues debated but not decided, actions promised but never taken. Some of this may be inevitable, but much of it is inexcusable. The concept of “deliberation” involves both discussion and resolution. Talking about something without taking action is, well, just talk.

This lesson is one for Congress and state legislatures to heed, but the mirror points in our direction, too. School boards are legislative bodies, charged with enacting policies and making critical decisions to guide the work of the public education system. The issues they handle can be challenging, involving numerous stakeholders with strong and conflicting views. The debates often are emotional and highly charged. Serving on a school board is not for the faint of heart, but those who do so are expected to do it well.

I have worked with and on behalf of school boards for more than 35 years. I am a strong and committed advocate for them, but with an important caveat: Their governance role must make a positive difference. These local leaders assume an enormous responsibility when they take office, and it needs to be exercised in a way that achieves results and garners respect. This is particularly important now as Congress moves to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

Earlier this year, NSBA convinced both the House and Senate to insert provisions into their respective ESEA reauthorization bills upholding and promoting local school governance. We are optimistic that such language will be included in final compromise legislation that likely will be enacted during the current session of Congress.

This development is noteworthy because it indicates the fulcrum in education policymaking is being reset, providing an opportunity for school boards to demonstrate just how effective they can be in formulating sound policies, ensuring accountability—and making decisions. In other words, school boards can be a model for the leadership we expect from every other level of government.

[Article as published in NSBA'S American School Board Journal (ASBJ) December 2015 issue.]

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