Time for new clarity on the role of school boards

This posting was written by Lisa Bartusek, Executive Director of the Iowa Association of School Boards.

For decades, “local control” have been buzz words for school boards and those of us who dedicate our professional lives to advocating for and building the capacity of local school boards. Today, I’d like to invite you to step back and reflect: I believe it’s time to change our semantics as well as get crystal clear on our views about the appropriate roles for local, state, and federal policy.

The phrase I’ve been using is “local governance.” The role of school boards isn’t about complete “control”—it’s about a structure of governance at the local level that is based on community leadership and oversight.

In the context of state and federal policy, local school board governance—in constructive partnership with the superintendent--can do at least three things that are impossible to accomplish at the state and federal levels:

Local school board governance is a catalyst.
Only local governance provides a constant source of leadership within schools and communities that motivates, persuades, and inspires people to want more for students. The will for excellence cannot be mandated from afar. People must be inspired to want excellence for themselves. That takes leadership conversations that create a sense of urgency, that hold forth high expectations, and that paint a clear picture and vision of what is possible—beyond the status quo. You provide those leadership conversations every month at the board table, as a centering point for the superintendent and staff. You can provide them every day in your conversations with parents, neighbors, and community leaders.

Local school board governance is diagnostic.
Every school district is at a different point in its journey to improve.  In my outreach to the Iowa Association of School Boards’ (IASB) members this fall I’ve been especially struck by this. IASB’s members face many different challenges with academics, finances, facilities, and community engagement and more.; Only local governance can work within the context of state and federal policy to diagnose the unique position of each district, weigh priorities and district capacity, and set specific goals for the most important thing to improve next in the journey to excellence. Your work to set district goals, to align budgets with priorities, to evaluate the superintendent—all are diagnostic in ways that could never be done as well from afar.

Local school board governance is a check-and-balance.
State and federal policy, however well-intended, can go awry in implementation or become out of balance with the real needs and challenges faced by public schools and valued by citizens. Locally elected school boards are entrusted by their communities to advocate to state and federal officials to get the policy mix right. You are uniquely situated to monitor and understand where things are breaking down, and to advocate for a fix when they are broken. Your state school boards association represents you with policy makers and engages you in direct advocacy to get the message across at the state level, and through the National School Boards Association, at the national level.  Together, we can advocate in a unified and powerful way for public education and student learning.



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