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Back to Basics: An Overview for New School Directors

The responsibilities of a school director are numerous. From approving budgets to monitoring legislative developments to conducting labor negotiations, it’s understandable that many new members of the board are surprised by the breadth of knowledge required. Fortunately, there are resources designed to help you acclimate to your new role – and excel.


Many new school directors have management experience but may not fully understand the difference between management and board governance. A key understanding is that the board plays a strategic role, setting the broad vision of the district, while the superintendent oversees the day-today operations, says Brianna Crowley, director of education and training.

For example, with the exception of the superintendent and any assistant superintendent(s), the school board is not responsible for supervising, hiring or firing personnel of the district. The board is responsible for approving textbooks and curriculum, while the superintendent is accountable to demonstrate how students are achieving and growing in the system. Broadly, school boards set the goals and priorities of the district and the superintendent decides how they will be accomplished.

Another important point to remember is that although each school director has his or her own vote, the board operates as a collective. In fact, the nine-member board, plus the superintendent, is sometimes referred to as the Team of 10. By themselves, school directors have no authority; only the full board can make decisions for the district. While not a voting member of the team, the superintendent is critical in the board’s and the district’s success.

Some of the biggest learning curves for new school directors involve getting up to speed quickly on the board’s processes and procedures for things like approving policy, budgeting or facilities planning. New members are often entering the board in the middle of several ongoing projects. “School board service can be described like a train that is consistently running,” Crowley says, “It stops to pick up new passengers and let other passengers off; however, the work continues.”

For those not accustomed to parliamentary procedure – which is designed to protect order, promote equality of participation, and move the agenda forward efficiently – learning how a board meeting is conducted can be a challenge. Each board also has its own culture and new directors must figure out how to best ask questions and receive information, how to build professional working relationships with limited time, and how to navigate being in the public eye. Crowley recommends new school directors take an observational role for the first few months while learning. Ask questions and participate in deliberation but acknowledge that there is a lot to learn.

Research, such as the Iowa Lighthouse Study, has shown that the decisions made by an efficiently operating board directly and positively impact student achievement. With so many key decisions to make, training is critical for board effectiveness. In 2018 legislation was passed mandating training for all new and reseated school directors. PSBA offers a variety of opportunities for live and online training that meets these requirements, which should be viewed as the minimum for board training. The association also offers courses and events that cover other topics, including those on cultivating a positive board culture and on equity, which must be a key goal for every board.

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