School board deliberation refers to the process of decision-making and discussion among members of a school board regarding agenda items. Often when members are elected to the board, they do not have a background in education and struggle to get up to speed on the role of the board when interacting with the superintendent on school district matters.
Learning best practices for effective questioning will help board members participate more fully in deliberations.
Why Is Effective Questioning Important to School Board Members?
With school boards across the country under attack for everything from books and curriculum to tax funding concerns, transparency is becoming increasingly important. Since the pandemic shutdown, many boards have continued to broadcast board meetings so the public has more opportunity to watch. What they see does not always reassure them. The term “rubber stamp” has long been lobbed at boards when the public does not believe they are doing their due diligence in the governing process.
In fact, recent research investigated who the public thought should be in charge of schools; the results did not bode well for school boards. If we take an honest look at ourselves as board members, some of the concern is warranted.
Board members serve mostly as volunteers; for the board members that get a stipend, it is typically small. Most board members maintain full-time jobs, families, and other responsibilities. The time it takes to prepare for a meeting is sandwiched between those other responsibilities and sometimes life takes over. Preparing for a board meeting sometimes takes a back seat.
In order to effectively and transparently deliberate during board meetings, it takes time to study materials and hone questioning skills. The payoff is a more trusting public and better decision-making by the board.
Responsibility of a School Board
School board member responsibility is an area that many people find confusing. Governance and oversight of management are the two primary duties of a board. What is it like to oversee a superintendent in a field you are not familiar with?
As they should, many board members defer to the knowledge and experience of the superintendent. However, this does not absolve the board member from responsibility. How does a board member know that a superintendent is making the best possible decisions for the district? They ask. They don’t only ask for opinion, but evidence to back up that opinion.
This isn’t to discount professional judgement, but to assure the board that decisions are based on research, data and experience and that changing problems are met with innovative responses.
A nationwide study revealed that the public thought boards should not continue to exist; they were ineffective and had run their course. In an experimental study, the survey respondents were then shown clips of school boards in deliberative and non-deliberative mode.
The group that saw the deliberative clip changed their opinion about the boards’ usefulness and effectiveness. The manner of deliberation matters. Most board members are well meaning community members volunteering to fill a role with little direction on how to do it. Learning to ask the right questions and deliberate more effectively will strengthen the board member in fulfilling their role.
Learning vs Judging Mindset Approach
Unfortunately, the thought of board members asking more and better questions strikes fear in the heart of many administrators. More questions are often equated with micromanagement. However, the governance role requires that board members are informed decision-makers. If board members have a better understanding of their responsibilities and fulfill them more effectively, they may be less inclined to encroach on the superintendent's authority in managing the district.
In her book, Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, Marilee Adams addresses this problem and asserts that it is how a question is asked that generally creates a defensive response.
Questions in and of themselves are not bad, yet often spark hard feelings and arguments. Being attentive to one’s mindset is key to generating healthy and productive discussions and sharing information without becoming defensive. Having a judgmental mindset often leads to a closed-minded approach toward a situation or topic. Their tone is critical, and their discourse is problem-based and blame-focused. The language and tone are often dismissive or demeaning and ready for disagreement.
In contrast, engaging in a discussion with an open mind and a learning mindset encourages genuine/healthy deliberation and debate. Coming into a conversation with curiosity and acceptance creates a less confrontational tone. A team should be solution-focused, looking for win-win answers. If the conversation begins with an attempt to understand rather than judge, the free flow of ideas paves the way for better solutions.
Joan Garry states, “Board members are ambassadors. Every question should be asked in the tone and spirit of someone who is deeply committed to the mission. And the staff should feel that.” An “us vs. them” mindset is never helpful in a boardroom.
Higher Level Approaches to Thinking and Questioning
Good questioning and deliberation begin even before the meeting starts. The human brain can only process so much information at a time. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a hierarchical system for ordering thinking skills from lower to higher.
Lower-level thinking skills involve acquiring and comprehending knowledge. Higher-order thinking skills involve processing the information and using it in different ways such as analyzing and problem solving. You cannot get to higher-order thinking without mastering the lower-level information first.
Coming to a meeting by reading the agenda and supporting documentation allows a board member to be ready to problem solve. Lack of preparation leads to reading and trying to comprehend during the meeting, which rules out critical and innovative thinking: the brain cannot process information on both levels simultaneously.
Questions from a higher-order perspective allow board members to apply the knowledge they have gleaned from reading in advance, the documents prepared by the administration. For example, in discussing staff salary schedules, lower-level questions might include what is the dollar amount of salaries and if it is an increase over the prior year. Knowing these facts is useful to a degree, but not conducive to strategic analysis.
What are districts in the area paying staff? What are districts with similar demographics from around the state paying? Is the district competitive? Are there ways besides salary that the district can attract and retain quality staff? Can the district support salary increase in the long term? Have you examined staffing patterns to see if they are still in line with student population and projected growth or decline?
There are many aspects to consider to be a good steward of district resources, by coming to meetings prepared to ask challenging questions, the board will be working in a true oversight role.
How Questions Can Foster a Culture of Inquiry and Innovation
In the book, Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards, the authors offer a framework for governance. While the book is aimed at nonprofit boards, the fundamental elements are sound for any governing body. The framework is based on three areas, referred to as "modes." These three modes are:
- Fiduciary mode: This mode is concerned with ensuring that the organization is financially solvent and that it complies with legal and ethical obligations. In this mode, the board is focused on overseeing the organization's financial affairs, managing risks, and ensuring that the organization is accountable to its stakeholders.
- Strategic mode: This mode focuses on setting the organization's overall direction and ensuring that it achieves its long-term goals. In this mode, the board is focused on developing and implementing strategies that will help the organization achieve its mission and vision.
- Generative mode: This mode deals with exploring new ideas, generating new knowledge, and fostering creativity and innovation within the organization. In this mode, the board is focused on asking questions, challenging assumptions, and thinking creatively about the organization's future.
These three modes are interdependent and overlapping, with effective governance requiring a balance between all three. Effective governance involves not only ensuring compliance with legal and ethical obligations (fiduciary mode) and developing and implementing effective strategies (strategic mode), but also fostering a culture of inquiry and innovation (generative mode).
Not every issue needs a generative conversation in the boardroom. Generative conversations focus on creating new ideas and possibilities rather than simply discussing existing ones. These conversations are particularly important when dealing with complex issues or if there is a need for significant change. In these situations, it’s important to have a dialogue that explores new ideas and perspectives rather than relying on past experiences or assumptions.
In Governance as Leadership, the authors challenge board members to consider what is at issue and what is at stake to determine when something deserves a generative conversation. When the stakes are student learning outcomes or the reputation of your district, these topics merit generative conversations.
How Can Diligent Community Support Better Board Deliberations?
The essential element of good deliberation is preparedness. Hosting board agendas in an online portal ensures that they are readily accessible and easily searchable. When a board member is looking for data related to an item, it is easy to find and retrieve even during the board meeting.
Diligent Community’s mobile first design ensures that the agenda is available anytime your device is. No more taking a non-secure document on a weekend trip—everything you need is available in a secure and up-to-date format.
Using the Notes feature, a board member can create questions, notate specific information they want to ask about and highlight areas of interest, ahead of an upcoming meeting.
As you begin to incorporate these strategies into your deliberation and meeting preparation, give yourself time to become steeped in the process. Overall, school board deliberation is crucial for ensuring that decisions are made in the best interests of students and the community, and that the decision-making process is transparent, equitable, and collaborative.
Being intentional about your participation in board deliberations is the most important step. We at Diligent are here to support you as you incorporate better questioning and deliberation into your board meetings. Here is a quick guide to better questioning techniques. Find out more about Diligent Community and how it can help your school board.