Your Leadership Partners

By Davis W. Campbell

Perhaps the most overlooked participants in the debate over the direction of school reform are the 53 state and territory school board associations in the United States. These nonprofit organizations, which serve individual districts and school boards as members, are active and influential participants in education policy development and implementation across the country.

Every school board association, no matter how big or small, has a significant legislative presence in its state capitol. Aligned with the National School Boards Association at the federal level, they are among the leading voices for public education and local district governance. Their member districts, which represent virtually every community in a given state, provide a powerful grassroots base of support that cannot be ignored by state policymakers.

Notwithstanding the growing federal role and influence generated by the No Child Left Behind Act and the Obama administration’s recent initiatives, major school policy and financial support remain focused at the state level. Indeed, over the past 20 years, the state role in education has dramatically increased. Most, if not all, states have adopted academic standards and assessment systems to measure progress. Reform efforts increasingly focus on the state-level policies so essential to their implementation.

The role of state school board associations has expanded at the same time. In every association, legislative advocacy is an important part of the agenda. In virtually every state, school reform discussions include representatives of local boards and state school board associations. In most states, the school boards association is considered one of the “big three,” which also includes teachers unions and administrative organizations. In larger state associations, legislative operations are usually as extensive as those of any other major statewide education organization.

Scott Plotkin, my successor as executive director of the California School Boards Association, (CSBA) says state associations “play a vital role representing the needs of our public school system.”

“We provide a strong, unified voice on behalf of the entire K-12 system,” Plotkin says, “with an emphasis on strong academic achievement for all children and with a goal to ensure that our children are not lost in the political and economic battles currently being waged in statehouses around the country.”

Broad grassroots base

To understand the state associations’ influence in policymaking, it’s important to recognize the importance of their broad, grassroots political base. Like similar organizations that serve cities and counties, state school board associations have local institutions -- school districts -- as members.

Although they clearly represent the board governance perspective, state associations tend to have K-12, system-wide perspectives on education issues. These perspectives, which are reflected in their policy positions, are different from those of other major statewide education organizations whose membership is primarily made up of individuals representing a particular constituency, such as teachers and administrators, or special programs or interests.

Common themes run through state association advocacy that reflect that broader perspective. At the heart is a fundamental belief in every community’s right to govern its schools. It’s not surprising that positions are based on a core belief that the people who know best are those closest to the child: the teacher, parent, principal, superintendent, and the community’s elected representatives. This fundamental position is deeply rooted in public education’s history and culture and is reflected in most policy positions adopted by the associations.

Sometimes too simply, this position is characterized as a dichotomy between local and state control of education. While tension clearly exists from time to time, in many jurisdictions state school board associations have endorsed or taken the lead in supporting state academic standards and other statewide reform initiatives.

A second theme in association advocacy is a commitment to improving student achievement for all children. This commitment often leads to strong advocacy for more flexibility for local districts to deviate from state and federal regulations, similar to the flexibility afforded to charters and other alternative school options.

Consider some of the numerous statewide initiatives undertaken by state associations around the country. The CSBA, which has made closing the achievement gap its top priority, is a key partner with the California Department of Education in working to assist low-achievement districts in implementing programs to exit from the “program improvement status” required by the No Child Left Behind legislation.

The Lighthouse Project, a joint venture between the school board associations of California, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Oregon, and Wisconsin, focuses entirely on leadership at the district governance level for school improvement and student achievement. It is both a research project and board development/training effort that develops strategies to “ensure that state associations can say with confidence: ‘Our training programs can help you improve achievement for your students’.”

Another example is the Alaska School Boards Association’s Quality Schools/Quality Students (QS2) initiative. In place for the past decade, this initiative is a partnership between the association and districts that focuses on the achievement gap. QS2 is part of a larger program, the Alaska Initiatives for Community Engagement (ICE), which was created in 2001. Alaska ICE is designed to give local residents the information, tools, and assistance to work together and share responsibility for preparing the state’s children and youth for the future.

Community engagement

Given the local school board’s role, it’s not surprising that community engagement is a major priority for state associations. In 1998, the Arkansas School Boards Association implemented the Arkansas Study Circles Project, a program that engages local communities throughout the state on issues such as student achievement, high school reform, and family involvement. The project also works in areas such as diversity, early care and education, out-of-school opportunities, and children’s health.

The Maryland Association of Boards of Education (MABE) sponsors a community engagement program called “What Counts” in partnership with local boards and superintendents. Facilitated by MABE staff, these local district forums provide an opportunity to engage in “kitchen table” discussions with six to eight community members at a table. Working together, participants discuss how they determine a school’s effectiveness and/or their expectations for programs and services. The forums are very popular; 98 percent of participants have indicated they would attend again. In addition, many districts have used the process to gather public input on topics such as strategic planning and budget priorities.

CSBA has joined the state’s education and public health departments in a project that brings together a diverse group of community leaders who play a role in creating sustainable healthy school environments. Last fall, the partners sponsored the second annual School Wellness Conference, which focused on best practices and resources, statewide success stories and model program workshops, improved access to healthy foods and physical activity opportunities, sample district policies that promote health on school campuses, and strategies to help schools succeed in implementing and evaluating local wellness policies.

Also in California, the state association helped launch a highly successful project that aligns statewide services for children and families. Started in 1997 by CSBA, the League of California Cities, and the California State Association of Counties, the City, County, School Partnership grew out of a highly successful collaboration on a series of children’s summits. Based on that experience, the three groups founded a permanent nonprofit organization that focuses on collaborative programs for children and families. The officers and executive directors of the three associations govern the organization.

One by-product of the collaboration has been improved relationships between California’s cities, counties, and schools. Today, the groups discuss a wide range of issues and take action on joint projects that have important policy implications. These discussions have bridged potential differences and dysfunctional competition at a time of severe financial crisis that could have had even more extremely negative consequences for all three segments of local government if no collaboration occured.

Continuing education

Training for school board members and superintendents is another major function of state associations. Eighty-one percent provide some direct training, usually in two broad areas. First is a leadership dimension that focuses on governance roles and responsibilities. The second focuses on education issues including school reform, student achievement, assessments, and related pedagogical issues.

At a time when some question the continued importance or even relevance of local school boards, this training is extremely important. The various governance training programs help school board members focus on leadership skills, effective governance strategies and understanding of critical issues of reform and restructuring, and student achievement and accountability. The emphasis on effective, policy-oriented governance is important for local boards to provide the policy leadership necessary to improve student achievement in their communities.

CSBA has a two-year master’s degree program in governance that requires nine full days of training for school board members and superintendents in the foundations of effective governance, setting direction for the district, student achievement, finance and budgeting, human resources, collective bargaining, policy, and governance integration. To date, more than 1,500 superintendents and board members have participated in the program, which is widely endorsed throughout the state.

Accountability to the community for successful programs to raise student achievement is a major responsibility of local boards, but their ability to carry out this function depends largely on the quality of the information they receive. Under NSBA’s leadership, a number of state associations have developed and are implementing data-based decision-making projects that are helping to define the quality and amount of information needed for these critical policy decisions.

In recent years, numerous school board associations have adopted professional governance standards for board members and boards in their states. These efforts further reflect the commitment of state associations to demonstrate a commitment on the part of local boards to govern at the highest standard possible.

Providing direct services

State school board associations provide much more than legislative advocacy, board development and training, communication, and community engagement services. A number of important programs directly support districts as well as boards.

For example, 84 percent of associations provide policy services to districts. These services provide sample board policies to implement state and federal regulations as well as model governance policies reflecting the board’s policy role. Services also include information on court cases that affect schools.

Approximately two-thirds of the associations provide superintendent search services. Many believe that the board’s most important job is selecting the superintendent. Having state school board associations provide executive search services makes the association a major partner in this critically important responsibility.

More than half of the associations provide insurance programs for districts, while others provide labor relations, legal, and technology support services.

The policy leadership and advocacy, community engagement, and wide range of support services provided by state and territorial school board associations make them important players in the debate over the future direction of the nation’s public schools.

Despite the very visible and dramatic increase of federal influence, public education will remain a fundamental function of local and state governments. Well over 80 percent of the financial resources supporting the K-12 enterprise continue to emanate from local and state taxes.

The local school board will remain an intrinsic component of school governance. As states, with their legal responsibility for education, continue to be the linchpin of our decentralized educational governance structure, the important role of the state school board associations must become better understood and recognized by the general public and policymakers.   

Davis W. Campbell ( is a senior fellow in the Center for Applied Policy in Education at the University of California-Davis and is the former executive director of the California School Boards Association. 

The Turnover Effect: How leadership churn affects school districts

By Joseph L. Natale

A school board’s expectations set the stage for its relationship with the superintendent. As board turnover increases, the board’s goals and expectations can change and stymie the superintendent’s efforts to manage the district’s operations. Conflict results when superintendents and boards get into each other’s territory. When the board changes, so may the agenda.

Various studies have looked at the effects of superintendent and board relationships. However, the impact of board turnover as it affects the superintendent’s and board’s ability to govern a school district has not been given sufficient attention, particularly in the areas of goal setting, micromanagement, and governance.

In my role as the director of Advisory Solutions, a district consulting services department of the New York State School Boards Association, I decided to see whether superintendents feel that board turnover affects their ability to meet district goals and expectations. I surveyed and interviewed superintendents across New York state, discovering a number of things along the way that deserve further study and reflection as we work toward the common goal of improving student achievement.

The survey says

The makeup of the survey participants mirrored that of the superintendents in New York state -- 78 percent were male, compared to the state average of 76 percent. Board turnover was broadly defined as a change caused by a defeat in an election, a resignation, or a decision not to seek re-election.

Overall, perceptions about the effects of turnover were very similar. However, women felt much more strongly that turnover results in greater board micromanagement and more greatly affects the superintendent’s relationship with the community. Not surprisingly, the greatest impacts of turnover were found in three areas: the board’s ability to set long-term goals for the district, board-superintendent relations, and board expectations.

Some of my other findings include:

• Superintendents with six to 10 years of experience in the position have more difficulty with board turnover than those with less or more experience. It raises the question: Is this the period in the superintendent’s career when he/she is more likely to move on to another district?

• New superintendents, those with fewer than five years of experience, feel more micromanaged when there is frequent board turnover. Not surprisingly, they also feel more strongly that this affects their ability to run the district.

• Superintendents with more than 10 years of experience feel turnover has a greater negative effect on the board’s ability to govern the district.

• Board turnover has a greater negative impact on governance in districts of more than 5,000 students, according to the superintendents. One area that needs more study is why districts with fewer than 1,000 students do not feel as affected. Is it due to a greater board committee involvement in smaller districts?

• Suburban district superintendents did not feel turnover was as likely to cause micromanagement for them as it did for city and rural superintendents.

• Superintendents who had just a master’s degree felt the impact of board turnover more directly, especially in setting short-term goals. This could indicate a greater degree of confidence to govern a school district for those with a higher level of education and training. Further study may be needed to determine this relationship, however.

More research needed

Quality district leadership and success requires boards and superintendents to set long-term goals for educational improvement. This study indicates that board turnover inhibits the superintendent’s ability to set long-term goals for the district.

As a result, this may have a significant impact on the ability of school districts to strategically plan for continuous improvement. Long-term goals and objectives are critically important in improving the quality of education in a district.

At the same time, what this study shows is that more research is needed on the effects of turnover. Should superintendents in districts that face considerable board turnover focus on short-term goals and professional development for the board? On average, it takes up to four years to fully understand the complex issues that educators face. How will a short-term approach help the district achieve its long-term goals?

There is no question that leadership churn poses potential problems and challenges for school districts. Significant turnover and board micromanagement can cause a district to lose momentum and muddle its mission. That reason alone is enough to study this issue further.

Joseph L. Natale ( is a former superintendent and director of AdvisorySolutions for the New York State School Boards Association. He also is an adjunct professor at the State University College of New York at New Paltz.