Succession Planning for School Boards

Diana Baker Freeman

The question of succession planning for elected boards is a complicated one. On the one hand, school districts thrive when there is continuity. On the other, they also benefit from new ideas.  School districts tend to utilize long range strategic planning as they strive to make the best use of their resources. Facilities, personnel, financial standing, and student success all require boards to assess where they are, develop a vision of the ideal, get buy-in from all stakeholders, and develop the steps to take toward seeing that come to fruition. Some longevity is required if the school is going to fully realize this vision. Without buy-in, this can all become an exercise in futility that becomes wasted time, effort, and resources.

Yet, when it comes to talk of succession and elected boards, the question of democratic principles inevitably enters the conversation. Is trying to impact or sway an election usurping democracy and a community’s right to choose? Most will tell you this isn’t the case if it is done correctly. Done incorrectly, the board and/or district runs the risk of a backlash from the public. No one wants to have their right to choose manipulated. If a board creates an atmosphere of educating the voters and making public their processes, they can invite the public to participate and create a new generation of stakeholders that are invested in the success of the district’s vision.

Understanding the Role of a School Board Member

When boards talk about succession planning, typically the first consideration is to the “talents” on the board. This loosely translates into the roles board members fill in other aspects of their life, most commonly their professional positions, schooling, or degrees, but it can refer to past experience as well. At its core, this demonstrates a lack of understanding of the governance role on publicly elected boards. While a CPA or attorney might be an asset in terms of understanding particular reports or knowing the questions to ask the superintendent on a specific issue, they do not function on a publicly elected board in their professional role. In one such board discussion during a building project, the construction company had different proposals for a particular aspect of the project. An experienced building contractor that sat on the board was able to weigh in on what his experience suggested would be the best option during the board’s discussion. However, in his board role, it was not his job to inspect the site, critique the job, or to collaborate with the construction company about the project. The district hired a construction manager, just as they retain a solicitor to tend to the legal functions of the school, and the financial director attends to the financial obligations. This is not to discount, though, the value of board members with varied experience as the board deliberates and comes to decisions in its oversight role. The concern is merely to point out that volunteer boards for non-profit organizations have quite different roles than that of elected board members.

An understanding of this critical difference between publicly elected boards and corporate or nonprofit board members requires an understanding of the role of an elected board. The two primary functions of a board are governance and oversight of management. Governance is the process of setting the vision, the direction of the district and guiding the steps that will lead toward fulfillment of that vision. This is done in partnership with the administration. While the administrator is the day to day manager of the operations of the school district, the leadership team works together to decide what direction the district will take and what critical issues they want to focus district resources on as well as the reasonable steps to be taken toward that vision—what counts as success. This is their oversight role—agreeing to objectives and holding the district leaders accountable for achieving those. Elected boards do not take an active role in the daily processes of the school.

Types of Board Succession Planning

When a district does attempt succession planning, there are three primary ways to go about it that do not run afoul of democratic practices. While variations to these may be considered, we will discuss the three main plans.

1. Recruitment of School Board Candidates

The most basic is for board members, or even district officials to recruit candidates. When advocates for the district see a person that has leadership potential, takes a particular interest in the district, or could speak for a particular group that may have been previously underrepresented on the board, they may approach this person and encourage her to run for a board position. Typically, this would be an open position or consist of general encouragement to run at some point. While a district official may encourage someone to run, the district would not support any individual candidacy. Some board members may choose to publicly campaign for or support board candidates; this should be approached with caution. Following the election, the board must work together regardless of who is elected. This can create discomfort and even animosity if a board member has campaigned rigorously for the opponent of a winning candidate. While this is informal and the most common form of succession planning, it is effective. Board members as well as district officials would be advised to contact the candidate using personal email and personal devices if they want to discuss possible candidacy. While laws vary from state to state, it is commonly accepted that district resources may not be used in elections or electioneering. State school board associations could advise sitting board members or administrators as to the specifics in their state.

2. Early Resignation/Appointment

Another manner by which boards seek to impact succession is through early resignation. Some boards have an informal agreement that if a member knows she does not plan to seek re-election, she will resign her seat in advance, creating a path for the board to appoint someone. This person has several months to learn the ropes, become acquainted with the district and board, then he will appear on the ballot as an incumbent. This can give a perceived slight advantage in an election. One district that employed this tactic did so with all good intentions. The district was struggling and had historic turnover in both management and board members. The superintendent realized that turning the district around and avoiding state takeover would require a strategic plan, buy-in, and enough longevity to see it through. This approach worked for this district for several years and they were able to get the district back in a positive direction.

One possible consequence of this approach is that the board can become a clique. They may not look far for outside influence and catalysts to change. If voters begin to feel left out of the process, they may become disenfranchised and push back against district efforts. This plan also might incite suspicion from the community. If employed for the right reasons, it has the potential to be helpful and result in the continuity that can move a district forward. It would be difficult to formalize this plan and make it available for the public without it looking like an attempt to manipulate voters—even with the best of intentions. When many boards are already perceived as “rubber stamping” administrator plans, this stands the chance of most likely alienating voters and incurring pushback in a way that can be disruptive and have the opposite of its intended effect.

3. Leadership Academy

Some districts encourage board member succession through the development of a district academy. These academies are often patterned after community and statewide leadership academies.  Areas of district operations are divided out over the course of about nine months (special education, nutrition, curriculum and instruction, etc.).  A cadre of community members meets monthly to learn about the different aspects of the district at an in-depth level. They come to understand the role of elected board members, historic placement of the district in academic standing, as well as plans for improvement and progress. This academy can be formalized unlike the previous two plans.

Modern communities are calling for transparency. By laying bare the workings of the district as well as a plan to encourage involvement in not only the board, but all aspects of the district, the board is being responsive to this need for transparent processes. This plan is the most principled in terms of its goals and approach.

Modern governance requires an informed board. Community members that have completed the academy can not only present themselves well in a candidate forum or campaign speech, they can be advocates for the district immediately. The graduates of the academy can form a sort of ambassador corps in the community. Even the graduates that do not choose to pursue office can advocate for the district, good governance processes, and even qualified board candidates based on their knowledge gained while in the program. This is a win-win proposition. It has the best chance of developing and encouraging board members with new ideas, but ones that will not have unintended consequences for the district due to a lack of understanding of roles and legal guidelines.

Closing Thoughts

At its core and done with positive intentions, succession planning for elected boards can be a positive for the long-term success and academic growth of a district. Board members and administrators alike are encouraged to pursue this idea with caution. Each state’s election laws should be considered as well as the temperament of a community. Board members must act with integrity and high ethics, both in terms of actions and public perception. The last thing a school needs is to have the community feeling suspicious and manipulated. Encouraging public attendance at board meetings should always be a goal of district officials and directors. Educating the community can only serve the students well. Inviting participation in all aspects of long-range planning, community outreach and involvement are hallmarks of high functioning modern boards. Effort should be made at every turn to support and uphold public school boards and the democratic processes that keep them an integral part of the community.