School Governance 101

By Becky Gundrum — While campaigning for my second term on my local school board in the spring of 2011, I made a point of visiting the local parent teacher organizations at each of the schools in my district.

I have found that these are great venues for reaching a few highly involved and informed parents.  They often ask the most probing yet insightful questions about the operations of the district.  In the first meeting of the spring, I was taken aback when one young mother embarrassingly confessed that she did not know what the school board did and therefore was not sure it was important to vote in the next election.

This post is dedicated to all of those who do not really know what the school board does and are too afraid to ask because you think you should know. I will enter a couple of caveats here.

  1. The amount of time and the type of activity may change based on the local context. Governing in a large urban district poses different challenges than those in a small rural district.  My experience is limited to participation on one school board, direct observation of another and hours of scholarly research.

The National School Board Association (NASB) posits, “the key work of school boards is to improve student achievement and increase community engagement to promote student achievement.” I agree with this assessment but what does this actually mean? From a practical perspective, the school board is responsible for managing the budget, facilities and infrastructure, school personnel, enrollment, and curriculum to improve and enhance student achievement. In addition, they are responsible for hiring and managing the superintendent.  Much of the work is done through policy development and carried out by the administrative staff in the district.

A typical monthly board meeting begins with a review of the minutes, budget and finance review and approval, committee reports, communication from district personnel and open comment by the community. It is in these monthly meetings that decisions around such things as school trips, new soccer fields, drug and alcohol policies and standard testing results are made.  It is the school board’s job to review the materials and to ensure that the work of the administration is in keeping with the vision of the school board in terms of student achievement and community engagement.

The school board should NOT be engaged in the day-to-day activities in the school buildings unless these activities are directly related to policy development. Ineffective school boards micro-manage the administration resulting in inefficiencies lack of productivity, which will ultimately be reflected by declining achievement.

From a more theoretical standpoint, the NASB lists the following eight areas as the key work of school boards.

  • Setting the vision – What do we want to be? What does an educated student in our district look like?
  • Setting standards – Developing a common focus and understanding in terms of achievement and culture.
  • Assessment – How are we doing in our core business – student achievement (and I would add enrichment)?
  • Accountability – Have we set realistic targets? Are we reaching those targets? Why or why not?
  • Alignment – Do our standards and opportunities align with the administration, federal and state requirements and community expectations?
  • Culture – Do we have a climate of teaching and learning that leads to achievement in our district?
  • Collaboration and community engagement – Are we listening to our constituents and collaborating with them to meet the needs of the students we serve?
  • Continuous improvement – Are we growing complacent with the standards and achievement in our district? Is there room for improvement?

These are the questions and areas that drive the work of school boards and really effective school boards ask themselves these questions often.


Becky Gundrum is a Ph.D. student in Educational Policy and Leadership with interests in school board governance and organizational change.  She has served as a member of the Slinger School Board since 2008. Currently, she chairs the curriculum committee and works with both the new personnel committee, tasked with developing the emoter handbooks, and the policy committee.  She spends her free time running, playing soccer and maintaining her two teen-aged daughters. 

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