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Cultivating a productive culture for a multigenerational board

By Annette Stevenson

Annette Stevenson is PSBA’s senior director of communications

Anytime unique individuals come together under a common objective, certain challenges arise. School board directors are elected, not for their common traits or opinions, necessarily, but for their joint commitment to the best interest of public education in their communities and the students served. Each school director comes to the table with distinct life experiences, core values, motivations, communication styles and skill sets. All of this and more will come into play against the backdrop of ongoing board and committee meetings. An optimal educational experience for students and the solutions needed to meet increased demands on schools and educators may look different to each school director. Starting out with the right tone and maintaining a healthy, productive culture is key to success for a high-performing team.

The makeup of the board’s culture includes each director’s goals and expectations, habits, accepted norms, and nuances, along with the relationships and rapport of the directors in and outside of the board meetings. And good board culture must be cultivated. It doesn’t just happen.

A few foundational elements include:

  • Board self-assessment
  • Orientation and training
  • Trust, transparency and accountability
  • Listening, receptiveness to input and opposing viewpoints
  • Operational integrity, decorum and adherence to procedure

Kathy Swope, a former PSBA president and member of the Governing Board, and long-time board president at Lewisburg SD, advises that the groundwork can be laid for a healthy, respectful board culture with some clear steps taken on the part of the board president: “As board president, I take the opportunity following board reorganization to meet one-on-one with each school director for 30 to 60 minutes. In this time, I talk with them about what they would like to see the board address in the year ahead, along with their areas of concern and interests, so they can be appointed to appropriate committees.”

Another measure advised by Swope: “We schedule a board retreat and a board self-assessment (biannually) at the start of the new year, which ensures we begin with an opportunity to work as a team.”

The team’s culture determines how the team functions, but the group is comprised of individuals with different problem-solving strategies and communication styles. Among other factors, age and generational differences will impact how school directors interact and collaborate with one another.

According to Chuck Underwood, leading expert on generational studies, author and keynote speaker, there are inherent differences that each generation possesses. Beyond their control, each generation came of age being taught differently and surrounded by different societal and economic times. “Use those differences to enhance rather than diminish the board’s productivity,” Underwood advises.

Different formative years at the heart of each board director will serve as the catalyst for more focus on students, or more on teachers, parents or the administration. School directors will have various preferences and working styles, preferring to work alone or in groups. Consider forming a multigenerational advisory committee to navigate the generational differences among America’s five living generations represented across your school board, student population, administration, parents and local community. Ultimately, you may disagree or have opposing views, but the one place you can agree is on the premise that you are each there for the common good of the children and the community.

Generational differences

Understanding differences that are inherent to certain generations and periods in society can help create respect and appreciation for the individual’s contributions and style of working. According to Underwood and based on decades of research, the following traits apply in general to the generations that may comprise school boards in America today:

Silent Generation: Born mid-1920s to early 1940s

  • Believe in hierarchy and chain of command
  • Courtesy and civility are especially important
  • Prefer in-person dialogue, over phone conversations or digital communications
  • Thoughtful; listen and organize their thoughts before talking
  • Talk more slowly than Gen Xers and Millennials

Baby Boomers: Born mid-1940s to early 1960s

  • Transparent, ethics-driven, support the best idea rather than hierarchy
  • First generation of women and minorities to significantly penetrate governance
  • Assertive and passionate; will fight hard for their values and expect others to do the same
  • Courtesy and civility are important
  • Love the dynamics of group discussions

Gen Xers: Born early 1960s to early 1980s

  • Excellent at creativity, finding solutions
  • Like Boomers, they are entrepreneurial thinkers
  • Women continue to surge with this generation
  • Might prefer solitary work over group work
  • Not as assertive in a group dynamic, might need to be pulled in to the discussion
  • Like to research issues before discussing them
  • May stress metrics over “the human factor”
  • Independent, self-reliant; may not ask for help when needed

Millennials: Born early 1980s

  • Excellent career spirit
  • Eager to learn and please others
  • Idealistic, empowered, big thinkers
  • As the “guinea pigs” of the tech revolution, they have been hindered in their development of soft skills
  • Highly skilled in technology competencies

Generational dynamics are highly complex, and knowing a few inherent differences is just the tip of the iceberg. Underwood suggests that the first step toward understanding is to undergo training in generational dynamics, which will pour a solid foundation upon which one can navigate the differences.

Knowing that diverse individuals will have unique perspectives, and may feel strongly in their opinions, how should the situation be handled if things become heated? And should disagreements be deterred? Swope, based on her 12 years of experience as board president, gives guidance: “We start by focusing on finding common ground on divisive issues, and we have the expectation of each other that dissent is welcome and respected at our board table because it results in a final decision that better reflects the values of our community.” She goes on to add, “We also place potentially controversial issues on the agenda initially as an information item and ask what additional information the board would like in order to make a decision at the next meeting.”  B

Principles for Governance and Leadership

The best way to unify and establish accepted practices as a board is to adopt the Principles for Governance and Leadership. Knowing that the actions taken by school boards ultimately have both short- and long-term impact on students, adoption of the Principles shows your board’s commitment to providing every student the opportunity to grow and achieve. Boards should re-adopt the Principles as new members join. Notify PSBA about adoption via the form on PSBA.org and your school entity will receive a poster suitable for signing, framing and displaying in your buildings.

Advocate Earnestly
Lead Responsibly
Govern Effectively
Plan Thoughtfully
Evaluate Continuously
Communicate Clearly
Act Ethically

Resources

  • PSBA’s webcast Board Transitions: Surviving Board Reorganization and Building a Better Board Culture on myPSBA
  • Keystone Education Radio podcast with generational studies expert Chuck Underwood – coming soon!

2019 PSBA President David Hutchinson

If you talk to David Hutchinson about his role in public education, it’s clear he has a long-range vision. In addition to serving 15 years on the State College Area SD school board, he has served in multiple leadership roles at PSBA, including at-large representative (Central) and vice president, as well as on several committees and taskforces. Currently he also serves on the steering committee for the Commonwealth Blueprint Committee, which seeks to establish a vision for the future of public education in Pennsylvania. All of these leadership positions require big-picture thinking, not to the exclusion of the details and individuals, but for their benefit.

David says that what initially drew him to school board service was a challenge common to large schools, such as the high school in State College his children were attending at the time. Although the school was in a well-funded district and offered a high-quality education, because of its size it was easy for individual students to get lost. He wanted to make the experience feel more connected for each student. That’s why he became involved with the National School Climate Council early on in his board service. The organization’s goal is to help schools positively address and improve school culture and climate.

“A farmer would never plant a crop without paying close attention to what’s in the soil. In the same way, much of what happens in school, in terms of the opportunities that students have to grow and learn, is a function of the environment they’re in,” David says.

His goal is for the entire school community to work together to create an environment that’s physically, emotionally and intellectually safe, where students feel connected to teachers and each other. He believes this is especially important in efforts to help students to develop the kinds of skills that will be essential to their future, such as critical thinking, and the ability to relate to people one disagrees with. “So that’s been my passion – to help us get to that place where we are intentionally creating that environment,” he says.

He admits these multifaceted goals involving issues of equity don’t have “push-button” answers; but they are needed and well worth the effort.

State College Area SD initiatives

At State College Area SD, the board is in the implementation stages of its own equity policy. The policy was adopted in response to conversation sparked during a Public Issues Forum in Centre County, a community project David chairs. The Forum provides a place for community members to have extended conversations on challenging issues. David decided to introduce a conversation on race after reading a letter written to him by one of his three biracial children on how race affected their school experience. The meeting was well attended: “The forum generated a lot of enthusiasm and it really brought this issue to the forefront in our community,” David says.

Having seen the community’s response, the school board was moved to develop a School Climate/Inclusive Excellence Policy. The document outlines a number of areas of focus for the district that are known to impact educational equity, such as student voice and building connections with the community.

The project is one of many the board is working on, including four major construction projects, curriculum revisions and changes to the school schedule (including a later start time for secondary students). According to David, prioritizing all of these important projects and deciding what actionable steps to take first, is a challenge. Plus, with long-term projects, school directors may not see the final outcome for years, even decades. It’s difficult to not want to get it all done immediately. “We want to do everything, but we have to be patient,” he says. “It’s important to try to not put too much pressure on the system, on our teachers and administrators, because people can only do so much at once.”

PSBA goals

Given the work State College Area is doing, it’s no surprise that one of the goals David would like to see accomplished during his tenure as the association’s president is progress on PSBA’s equity initiative. The other is continued work on the Commonwealth Education Blueprint. A collaborative effort between education stakeholders, the Blueprint aims to provide a vision for the future of education in PA and to be the driving document to set and measure milestones toward achieving that vision.

From his perspective, the two projects are intertwined and, in order to be effective, require consensus from all the major stakeholder groups, as well as a clear articulation for the public. Because students’ needs are changing, David says school boards and other stakeholders need to rethink the kind of education traditionally offered and the extent to which it is helping students achieve success as members of the workforce, and as citizens. Adopting this mindset will have a positive impact on students and on the perception of public education.

“Rethinking education so that it’s providing what our students actually need will go a long way to reinvigorating public support for education,” he adds. “And I think that’s the piece that’s been missing over the last generation. If we can articulate what education could really look like, that would help the public understand why public education is valuable, and why they should support it.”

David sees the collaborative Success Starts Here campaign as a way to help educate the public on what a future-thinking education might look like, as well as provide schools across the commonwealth with examples of what is possible.

In addition to highlighting what a high-quality education looks like today, David says PSBA is uniquely positioned to be what he calls the “educator-in-chief” to the public on proposed legislation and policy affecting schools. Having a school director’s perspective helps PSBA effectively explain the impact of legislation to lawmakers, as well as bring to the public’s attention education policy issues that might otherwise be overlooked.

Lessons learned

As a school board veteran, David is familiar with the challenges of the role, particularly as they relate to its wide scope. His advice to new board members focuses on the importance of having some understanding about a lot of things: “You have to know something about everything to be a school director. It’s important to know enough that you can have intelligent conversations with people who know what they’re doing.”

He recommends three things for new school directors – PSBA training (“there’s nothing else comparable”), asking lots of questions, and patience: “It’s easy to get caught up in the conflagration of the moment. Wait it out. Stay the course.”

He also adds that waiting is part of the role: “Some of the things I wanted to accomplish when I first started, it took 10 years to see movement. And you’re not going to finish it either. Someone else is going to finish it.” For someone with a focus on long-term vision, it’s knowledge well-learned and well-earned.

2019 Governing Board

David Hutchinson
President

A 15-year veteran of the State College Area School Board (Centre Co.), Hutchinson has served on the PSBA Governing Board in several capacities, including as at-large representative (Central) and vice president, as well as on committees including Audit, Bylaws and Platform. In 2015, he chaired the Urban/Rural Taskforce and in 2016, co-facilitated the ESSA Study Group on charter schools. A graduate of Penn State University, Hutchinson has lived in State College for more than 40 years. He is proud of his three children, all of whom are State High and Penn State graduates. His community involvement includes his role as chair of the Public Issues Forum of Centre County, which provides the rare opportunity to hear the public voice through meaningful, extended conversations on challenging topics. This has included well-attended forums on standardized testing and the role of public education in the 21st century. He is committed to promoting good public policy and fostering relationships with legislators of both political parties. Through his work with the National School Climate Council, he understands the value of creating school environments in which every student and teacher feels respected and engaged, and shares in the responsibility of creating a culture of learning. He also believes that we have a collective responsibility to provide every student in Pennsylvania with an education that prepares them for life in today’s world; he is particularly enthusiastic about the work of the Commonwealth Education Blueprint, which is working to create a modern vision for all our public schools.

Eric Wolfgang
President-Elect

A 19-year member of the Central York School Board (York Co.), Eric Wolfgang has been board president for 12 of those years. He has been on the PSBA Governing Board as at-large representative (Central) and vice president. He has served as the PSBA liaison since 2002 and attained Master School Board Member status as well as the accreditation of PSBA Fellow. Wolfgang represented PSBA as the PIAA District III representative for eight years and was on the PIAA Board of Directors for two years. He has been York County legislative coordinator, PSBA Bylaws chair and Platform chair. Other PSBA experience includes Nominating, Governance and Allwein Award committees, and he is currently a member of the Legislative Advisory Council. He has presented on behalf of PSBA at the Board Presidents Boot Camp, The PA Newspapers Guild Boot Camp and was a participant on a charter school webinar. Locally he has served on the joint operating committee of York County School of Technology, Lincoln Benefit Trust Board, and the board of York Adams Academy. He volunteers with the Salvation Army and York’s Habitat for Humanity. Wolfgang was instrumental in helping to form the York Area Regional Charter School, a cooperative between York City, Central York and York Suburban school districts. A graduate of Penn State University with a degree in electrical engineering technology, he is employed by Electronics Manufacturing Services Group as a quality assurance manager. He and his wife of 38 years, Sherrie, reside in Springettsbury Township and have two grown children and three grandchildren.

Art Levinowitz
Vice President

A member of the Upper Dublin School Board (Montgomery Co.) for 20 years, Art Levinowitz has served as president for the past five years. For the past 10 years, he has also served as the president of the joint operating committee for the Eastern Center for Arts and Technology. In 2018 he earned the Certificate in Board Governance. He completed the Pennsylvania Education Policy Fellowship Program. He was a PSBA regional director, sectional advisor, a member of the Leadership Development Committee, and participated in the ESSA Study Group and one of the two study groups for the Commonwealth Education Blueprint. He also is a director of the Pennsylvania Public Education Foundation. He served as president for 10 years of the Upper Dublin Education Foundation and currently is a director. He has more than 25 years of volunteer experience in numerous local community activities, including chairing Upper Dublin Community Day on three occasions. He currently serves on the Upper Dublin Alumni Hall of Fame Selection Committee and is a member of the Planning Committee for the Annual Upper Dublin Medals Ceremony. Levinowitz earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from SUNY at Buffalo in music education, and another master’s degree in educational administration and supervision from Pace University in New York City. He holds a doctorate from Temple University in the psychology of music. He grew up in the lower east side of New York City and for eight years taught music in Brooklyn, NY. He is retired from the New Jersey State Department of Education after 28 years. His first love is music and prior to teaching he performed regularly with various jazz, Latin and disco bands. He is married to Lili, co-author of the internationally recognized Music Together program, and professor emeritus at Rowan University.

Mike Gossert
Treasurer

Mike Gossert is a member of the Cumberland Valley School Board (Cumberland Co.) and has served as president and vice president, chairman of the Finance Committee and Facilities Committee, as well as a member of the Sponsorship and Promotion Committee and Negotiations Committee. He holds a bachelor’s degree in public policy from Penn State University and a master’s degree in public administration from Shippensburg University. In addition to his formal education, Gossert served as a United States Marine and was honorably discharged in 1988. He has 20 years of local government experience, which has included assignments as zoning officer, planning director, project manager, finance manager, assistant township manager and township manager. He spent six years in the banking industry using his government finance experience to assist government entities, commercial businesses and institutions with their lending and general banking needs. He currently is vice president of Quandel Enterprises and is responsible for its marketing and business development efforts in Pennsylvania.

Michael Faccinetto
Immediate Past-President

Michael Faccinetto, a PSBA Master School Board Director, has been a member of the Bethlehem Area School Board (Northampton Co.) since 2009, serving as president since 2011. Faccinetto has served on the PSBA Governing Board for five years in the role of at-large representative (Eastern), vice president, president-elect, 2017 acting president and as the 2018 president. He is a member of the PSBA Insurance Trust and 125th Anniversary Committee and has also served as chairperson of the Platform and Policy committees as well as the Future of Membership Taskforce and PA EdPAC. Recently he has led and served as co-chair of the Commonwealth Education Blueprint. In his personal life, Faccinetto has been a licensed insurance agent in Pennsylvania for 18 years. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Penn State University in insurance and is currently enrolled in a Master of Education program at Lehigh University. Active in his community, he dedicates his time serving on numerous boards including The Foundation for the Bethlehem Area School District and the Minsi Trails Council, Boy Scouts of America. He is an avid runner and marathoner and lives in Bethlehem with his wife Amy and three children: Cole (11), Sydney (8) and Owen (7).

Maura Buri
At-Large Representative (Eastern)

A member of the Upper Merion Area School District Board of Directors (Montgomery Co.) since 2011, Maura Buri has had a passion for advocating for public education. She is not only an alumna of Upper Merion, but also a parent of three in the district. Starting on the Upper Merion Education Foundation and the Upper Merion Athletic Alumni Advisory Committee in 2011, she quickly grew into an advocate for the rights of students with special needs and joined the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit (MCIU), where she has served as secretary, vice president and is currently president of the board of directors. She has held other positions within the MCIU on the Negotiations, Education Foundation and Facilities committees. She has attended many trainings, educational sessions and seminars to increase her knowledge of issues facing public education. Adding to meetings, she speaks to groups in the community about partnering with school districts to build relationships and foster opportunities. She attends many events where she takes pride in building personal relationships with teachers, staff and community members. Buri has also served on the Platform and Policy committees for PSBA as well as taken part in advocacy days in Harrisburg, where she spoke on the Capitol steps, and in Washington D.C. She looks forward to furthering her advocacy efforts and working to promote public education.

Daniel O’Keefe
At-Large Representative (Western)

Dan O’Keefe has served as a school director in the Northgate School District (Allegheny Co.) for more than 16 years, including serving three terms as the board president and seven terms as treasurer. He will be serving his sixth year as a member of the PSBA Governing Board in 2019. He has represented his board to the local career and technical center for more than eight years and was recently elected president of the joint operating committee. In 2015, O’Keefe was elected to the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s board of directors. As a member of the PSBA Governing Board, O’Keefe has chaired several committees including the Executive Director Evaluation, the Governing Board Self Evaluation and the Non-School District Entity committees. He served on the PSBA Bylaws Committee in 2013 and 2016. In 2011, he earned his PSBA Master School Board Member accreditation. An active community member, O’Keefe is deeply committed to making his neighborhood a better place to live and work. He is a graduate of the Leadership Pittsburgh and the FBI Citizens’ Academy and is a previous president and board of governors member of a regional 501(c)3 organization. Over the last 30 years, he has worked with the youth of his community, volunteering for many years as a one-on-one companion and tutor at a home for disadvantaged youth. He co-founded an elementary school drama club and served as a consultant during the organization of the drama club at a second elementary school. O’Keefe has been an educator within his church’s educational program and served on the organization’s planning committee for the annual festival for 12 years. O’Keefe holds a Bachelor of Science degree in business management and has held leadership roles as a project manager for both manufacturing and engineering organizations and as the purchasing manager for a global manufacturer. O’Keefe and his wife, Theresa, live in Avalon, PA, and have three grown children – Becca, who lives in Philadelphia where she is finishing her studies at Temple; Sarni, who is employed at a personal care facility; and Jacob, a recent graduate of Slippery Rock University.

Larry Augustine
At-Large Representative (Central)

Education has always been an active part of Larry Augustine’s life. This includes being a student, a professor, an administrator and a school board member for almost 30 years. Professionally, he has been a college professor. In the past, he served on the Selinsgrove Area School Board (Snyder Co.) as secretary, vice president and since 2015, as president. In 2012, he became an elected representative of the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit, which serves 17 different schools districts in central Pennsylvania. He served as vice president and since 2013, as president. He has participated in PSBA activities since 2008 when he was elected PSBA liaison. Some of the duties and responsibilities he held in these positions are setting policy, acting on recommendations from the administrators and board members, adopting budgets, approving contracts, comprehensive planning for the future, levying taxes, conducting student and administrative hearings as required, and serving on committees, among others. For two years he served on the Allwein Award Committee at PSBA and now serves on the Legislative Advisory Committee. Several years ago, he earned the citation of Master School Board Director. He enjoys participating with others in the process of having an outstanding school district, a real meaningful and responsive intermediate unit and, now, a responsive PSBA.

Bethanne Zeigler
Chair, Advisory Council
Chair, School Board Secretaries Forum

Bethanne Zeigler is the school board secretary for Shikellamy SD (Northumberland Co.). She also serves as the supervisor of educational secretaries and secretary to the superintendent at Shikellamy SD, where she has been since 1987. Currently, she is serving as the chair of the School Board Secretaries Forum, as well as chair of the PSBA Advisory Council. Previously, she served as president of the Department of School Board Secretaries in 2013 and was a member of the PSBA Governing Board.   Zeigler has been a presenter at the PSBA School Board Secretaries Conference, as well as the PA Educational Office Professionals Annual Conference. Some of the topics she has presented on related to the role of board secretary, as well as attitude, organization and wellness. She also has been a guest speaker where she shared the power of attitude when facing life’s challenges and her own personal story of how she chose to be better, rather than bitter. Zeigler also holds a seat on the board of directors of Sunbury Revitalization Inc. Previously she served on the board of directors of the Greater Susquehanna Valley Big Brothers/Big Sisters program.

Tom Kerek
Sectional Advisor Co-Leader

Maj. Thomas C. Kerek (Ret.) serves as a school director in the Kane Area SD (McKean Co.) where he is the advocacy liaison and also the Intermediate Unit 9 representative for the district. Kerek has 22 years of service with the Pennsylvania National Guard and 28 years in the federal government. He is passionate about community involvement, especially in the area of education and nonprofit fundraising. He also served 10 years as the secretary/treasurer for the Allegheny Highlands Friends of NRA (National Rifle Association) to promote the scholastic shooting sports within the country. Kerek holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He also matriculated in secondary education at Mansfield University prior to receiving a position with the United States government. He is currently serving on PSBA’s Governing Council as sectional advisor co-leader. He served on the Leadership Development, Bylaws, Platform and PSBA EdPAC committees. Kerek also was involved with the re-development of the Principles for Governance and Leadership for school boards throughout Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Linda, are actively involved in community activities to develop Rails-to-Trails and other community revitalization efforts. His hobbies include model trains, airplanes and rocketry. He also enjoys woodworking, backpacking, muzzle-loading hunting, genealogical research and antiquing.

Sabrina Backer
Sectional Advisor Co-Leader

Sabrina Backer has been a member of the Franklin Area School Board (Venango Co.) since 2015, serving as vice-president since 2016. Additionally, she is her board’s PSBA liaison and serves on the Negotiations Committee, Hall of Fame Committee, and Personnel and Operations committees. She is active in PSBA and serves as a member of the Pennsylvania Public Education Foundation Board of Directors, is a sectional advisor (Section 1), a member of the Bylaws Committee, a member of the Legislative Advisory Council, and a past member of the Platform Committee. She volunteers with Dukefest, an animal rescue organization and is active in her community’s theater through her children. Backer attended the University of North Carolina at Fayetteville and is the human resources coordinator for a home health company. Backer resides in Franklin with her husband, Brian, and their two children, Britton (18) and Cambree (14).

PSBA Sectional Advisors

SectionLeaderDistrictTerm - 2-year
Section 1Sabrina BackerFranklin Area (Venango Co.)2019 & 2020
Section 2Tom KerekKane Area (McKean Co.)2019
Section 3Julie PrestonNorthern Tioga (Tioga Co.)2019
Section 4Dr. Gary SmedleyCarbondale Area (Lackawanna Co.)2019 & 2020
Section 5Marsha PletaWashington (Washington Co.)2019
Section 6Andrea ChristoffMount Union Area (Huntingdon Co.)2019 & 2020
Section 7Denny HelmEast Pennsboro Area (Cumberland Co.)2019
Section 8Amy GoldmanRadnor Township (Delaware Co.)2019 & 2020

2019 PSBA Advisory Council

Bethanne Zeigler
Chair, Advisory Council
School Board Secretaries Forum
Shikellamy School District

Erin Gilsbach Esq.
Past President, PA School Board Solicitors Association (PSBSA)
Steckel and Stopp

Jo Anne Yarnall
Pupil Transportation Forum
West Chester Area School District

Bonnie J. Miller, CEOE
PA Association of Educational Office Professionals (PAEOP)
Pace School

B