"Boards of Education: The Need of Effective Leadership." By William L. Bainbridge and M. Donald Thomas. January 2003.

TQ TECHNOS Quarterly
Volume 11 Number 4 Winter 2002
Journal of the Agency for Instructional Technology


Boards of Education: The Need for Effective Leadership


William Bainbridge


M. Donald Thomas

No topic seems to gain more attention in local newspapers and in the electronic media than continuing friction among board of education members and between boards and administrators. This increasingly negative spotlight in many school systems makes it more difficult to recruit good superintendents and tougher to interest community leaders in serving on boards of education.

Nearly two decades ago the American School Board Journal featured John Crawford as an exemplary school board member. The article characterized Crawford, a Past Chair and Member of the Salt Lake City, UT, Board of Education, as an effective board member because:
  • He was results oriented;
  • He knew how to conduct a board meeting;
  • He appreciated school system employees and was fair with them;
  • He communicated forcefully, clearly and directly with the superintendent;
  • He expected high quality work from administrators;
  • He understood the meaning of "public trust" and conducted board business in public view; and
  • He was a public servant in the truest sense.
Salt Lake's Board of Education, under the presidency of John Crawford, "set the direction, made tough decisions, showed courage and held the schools accountable." The Board did not interfere with the superintendent's obligation to manage the school system and conduct the day-to-day affairs.

Unfortunately, today the John Crawfords serving as members of Boards of Education are few and far between . Few individuals possess the courage and determined principles to improve our schools. As pointed out by an Iowa study published by the Educational Research Service (ERS Spectrum, Winter 2001,Vol.19, No.1), extensive on-site interviews revealed that " the understandings and beliefs of school boards in high achieving districts differed 'markedly' from those in low achieving districts." Effective school districts, the study " School Boards and Student Achievement: A Comparison of Governance in High- and Low-Achieving Districts" concluded, create seven conditions:
    1. Shared leadership;
    2. Continuous improvement;
    3. Sustained initiatives;
    4. Supportive workplace for staff;
    5. Utilization of data;
    6. Staff development; and
    7. Community involvement.
Regrettably, in 2003 many boards of education are ineffective and create conditions which impair the ABILITY of schools to provide quality education for their students. Many boards demonstrate the following:fractured relationships among board members; focus on partisan political interests;micromanagement of school affairs; concentration of personal interest items; ambivalence as to what is and is not important; frequent buy-out of the superintendent;capitulation to special interest groups; and the inability to negotiate with strong teacher unions. As a result, schools are generally operated for the benefit of adults, and children's welfare becomes secondary. Throughout our nation, education is being weakened by poor board of education leadership practices. It is enough to say: "John Crawford, where are you when our schools need you?"

Ineffective boards of education are identified by their school system results:
  • Large numbers of students failing basic skills tests;
  • High absenteeism of students and staff;
  • Extremely high failure rates, particularly at grade nine;
  • A revolving door for school administration; and
  • Few students participating in rigorous high level instructional programs.
School boards need to focus more on setting policy and less on micro-managing superintendents and school systems, according to a New England School Development Council (NESDC) report. . The 36 leaders who contributed to the report, Thinking Differently: Recommendations for 21st Century School Board/Superintendent Leadership, Governance, and Teamwork for High Student Achievement, made several recommendations for building school board-superintendent leadership team relationships including the need to: clearly define roles of board members and superintendents, provide boards and superintendents more training in working together, develop better college training programs for superintendents , adopt national certification requirements for superintendents, create a national center for school board-superintendent leadership . revise state laws to enable boards and superintendents to meet privately to periodically evaluate their work. The council advises boards and superintendents to work more as teams and less as adversaries.

Are there other policy solutions for these conditions other than the cloning of John Crawford? We believe the following considerations are in order:
    1. Board members should be elected to serve a six year term without being able to run for re-election until an additional six years have expired;
    2. Before being seated at the board, members shall participate in 30 hours of training and receive a passing grade on a rigorous examination;
    3. All board members shall abide by a Code of Ethics and be removed from the board by majority vote of the board when they have failed to abide by the Code..
    4. Employee and community concerns shall be presented to the board in writing and signed by the complainant;
    5. No action shall be taken based on anonymous information;
    6. The board of education shall not involve itself in four management areas:

      - Personnel matters;
      - Curriculum and teaching methods;
      - Personnel evaluation, except the superintendent of schools or others directly
      responsible to the board by state statute .
      - The organization of schools and the use of time.

    7. Former employees of the school system shall be prohibited by law from serving on a school board which has in any way contributed to their retirement system or plan.
School governance requires strong leadership that establishes accountability for school personnel, but does not interfere with day-to-day decisions made by employees. Such leadership requires men and women who, like John Crawford, understand the role of board members to set direction, make tough decisions, show courage and hold the schools accountable. Only then will our schools truly operate for the benefit of all children. Then also will school systems have the positive media coverage they deserve.
William L. Bainbridge a former Superintendent in three systems is President of SchoolMatch and Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton.Former Salt Lake City School Superintendent and former deputy superintendent for public accountability for the State of South Carolina M. Donald Thomas is Chairman of the SchoolMatch Advisory Board and National Lecturer for Nova Southeastern University.