How to Avoid Operational Distractions

By Del Stover

You’re sitting through your third meeting this month, and the clock is edging toward midnight. Your colleagues have spent the past hour debating personnel issues and minor contracts -- issues best left to the superintendent. You’re tired. You feel overwhelmed. You wonder how you’re going to make it through another year with this workload -- and the frustration that the board isn’t making the headway you’d expect.

If this situation mirrors your own experiences as a board member, you’re not alone. Plenty of school boards out there are wearing themselves down with too much work, says Jeff Cohn, a training specialist with the Illinois Association of School Boards. And invariably, he adds, that extra work is doing little to make your district more successful.

“Out of every 10 school boards, three or four really get into things they shouldn’t,” he says. “They’re obsessing on means instead of obsessing on ends, and that really does interfere with their ability to look forward. When you’re obsessed on means rather than ends, the means take up a tremendous amount of time.”

How do school boards fall into that exhausting trap? Most often, say board veterans, it occurs when you don’t stick to your governance role -- and instead turn your attention and energy to secondary issues. Call it what you will: Boards micromanage. They allow themselves to be distracted by day-to-day operational issues. They react to every community complaint. They get down in the weeds instead of soaring at 30,000 feet, where they belong.

The irony for these boards -- slowly being worn down by an endless cycle of meetings, fuzzy goals, and week-to-week crisis management -- is that all of their effort counts for little. Meanwhile, successful, high-achieving school boards aren’t overworked, Cohn says. But they’re busy -- very busy -- when they stick to their governance role: creating the district’s vision, writing a strategic plan, adopting policies to move that plan forward, holding the superintendent accountable, and rallying community support.

It isn’t rocket science, and most school boards “seem to get it,” Cohn says. “I see a great majority of boards doing good board work, working through their superintendent, allowing the superintendent to manage ... doing good governance. They are very busy just doing those things.”

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