School Board Team Building

By Doug Eadie

Over the past quarter century, in one-on-one interviews, I’ve asked hundreds of school board members two simple questions: What is it like being on this board? How would you characterize the board’s culture?

Here, paraphrased, is an answer I hear a lot: “Honestly, I can’t say I look forward to board meetings. A couple of my colleagues always seem to be playing to the galleries -- making pronouncements for public consumption rather than engaging in serious dialogue with the rest of us. Another board member constantly nitpicks our superintendent’s recommendations, asking really detailed questions about pretty minor things and boring the rest of us to tears. We’ve got a really negative dynamic on the board, and it gets in the way of governing, but I don’t know what we can do about it.”

Experience has taught me two things. First, boards that are reasonably cohesive governing teams with a positive board culture tend to do a better job of getting the very complex and high-stakes work of governing done than those where individualism trumps teamwork. Second, it is much easier to turn a self-appointing board -- such as the governing body of a nonprofit hospital or university -- into a cohesive governing team than to do so with the members of an elected governing body, which the great majority of school boards are.

The reason isn’t hard to guess: Elected board members tend to bring a legislative -- or constituency representation -- mind-set to the boardroom that works against team building. Think of the U. S. Congress, the mother of all dysfunctional governing bodies. School boards tend to be an even tougher nut to crack because of the highly emotional, potentially divisive issues coming their way these days, such as sex education.

So, what can we do? 

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