School Boards as Citizens

By John J. Cassel

The Illinois School Code (like many state codes) lists two key eligibility requirements for school board members: They have to be U.S. citizens and residents of their districts for least one year before their elections. Nothing about training or background or education level. Just residency and citizenship.

While these two requirements seem obvious, it’s helpful to think about the work of school boards as essentially the work of citizens. They are residents who have been asked by their community to gather regularly and provide direction and guidance to the community’s schools. What kind of conversations do these citizens have? How does the citizen school board contribute to the success of their schools?

At best, a school board’s essential conversation is about what the community needs and expects from its public schools. The board members become, over time, informed community leaders. They serve as trustees who hold the district in trust for their entire community. While board work is connected intimately to the work of the professional staff,  board members do not sit as amateur educators. They sit first as citizens.

Recently, there has been much thoughtful consideration regarding board governance (school boards, nonprofit boards, and beyond). In Governance as Leadership, authors Richard Chait, William Ryan, and Barbara Taylor make a case for three types of governance and suggest that successful boards practice all three:

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