If there is one thing to know as a school leader, it’s that there is more than one thing to know. Back in the 1800s, when public schools first were being formed in most places around the country, the local school board provided basic oversight of a fledgling operation. The work included building a school (often one room), and then making sure it was heated, books and other supplies were secured and, of course, teachers were hired. School board members typically also handled maintenance and other hands-on duties to keep the school running.
Along the way, as the population grew and the country changed, so too did the public schools. The growth of urban areas and then suburbia, the Industrial Revolution and later the Technology Revolution, diversification of the economy, and the increasing need to be competitive with other countries all have had profound influences on how public schools evolved.
Those school board members who were in office when the school system was founded would be stunned at the change. They likely would be in awe of the sheer scope of the operation, and they probably would have trouble comprehending that the institution they helped to start, in many communities, now hires more employees and has larger budgets than any other organization.
All this suggests that leadership of schools is one of the most demanding roles of any elected or appointed public official in America. Gone are the days of shoveling coal into the school’s stove, along with every other activity directly related to day-to-day operations. Today, school board members need to adopt budgets, enact policy, establish clear and measurable expectations, engage the public, and chart a future course — and then hire capable superintendents to execute those plans.
School board members do not have to be experts in any one area, but they need to be able to ask the right questions and acquire information essential to making good choices. Finances, curriculum and testing, strategic planning, state and federal legal requirements, and evaluating the superintendent’s performance are some of the demands on modern school boards. It should be noted that many of their actions are likely to engender criticism by at least a portion of the community. Decisions, particularly in a public arena, are difficult only if there is no consensus — which is to say, most of them are likely to make someone unhappy.
So, it is all the more remarkable anyone would give so much of their time to serve on a school board. Some might view it as thankless work, but board members would tell you the intrinsic rewards of preparing students for success in life are enormous. School board work is not for the faint of heart, but it is a perfect fit for those who care deeply about the importance of ensuring all children receive a great public education. These are the people, from every walk of life, that I have met over more than 39 years of working with and advocating for school boards. They inspire me every day.
A personal note: Recently, I announced that I will retire from NSBA in May 2020. I am at that point in life where I would like to have more time to pursue personal interests and to spend with my family. Yet, I will leave this job with mixed emotions. On one hand, I will miss my interactions with local school officials and so many others around the country. But I will have the enormous satisfaction of knowing that our public schools are in very good hands — those of local school board members.
Thomas J. Gentzel, Executive Director & CEO, National School Boards Association.
This article first appeared in the December 2019 issue of American School Board Journal and has been reproduced with permission from Thomas J. Gentzel, Executive Director & CEO, National School Boards Association.