A guide to decision-making best practices for public boards

Diana Baker Freeman

At the heart of every school board member’s job is decision-making: teachers, parents, and most importantly, students count on board members to make the best decisions possible for the future.

With this much weight riding on their decisions, how can boards be best equipped?

In order to ensure public boards are making the best decisions, they must begin with having the best information possible.

What typically drives decision-making on publicly elected boards?

Most school board members run for the board because they are interested in improving children's education. They are personally motivated to do well, and each trustee brings his or her own experience and background to the table. The difficulty sometimes comes in separating that expertise from the role of governing.

For example, an attorney might bring their legal expertise to the boardroom, but they shouldn't offer legal advice to the district. They could, however, use their experience to help guide the direction of the district and ask oversight questions of the superintendent.

Board members are tasked with overseeing and directing the district in areas such as organization, strategic planning, operations, finances and student achievement. The superintendent is the chief executive of the district and manages the day-to-day operations keeping in mind the vision and goals that the board has set.

Board members show up wanting to do well — they want to make a difference and tend to be community-oriented. However, wanting to make a difference is not enough. The work of the board is carried out in open meetings. The quality of the board's discourse impacts the quality of their decisions and the impact they have on districts. Even the topics open for discussion determine the quality of deliberations.

Many boards get through an entire meeting without discussing student performance. The length of cheerleader skirts, the age of air conditioners, and even the color of the football turf can cloud the real issues of student progress.

If boards are not laser-focused on the important topics and the quality of their decisions, it is easy for the peripherals to take over. These are topics that most board members feel comfortable with — 3 inches above the knee, not more than 20 years before replacement, and green. Easy, mostly quantitative answers that do not require specialized knowledge.

Improving student outcomes so that they have the best chance at a rewarding life is a broader, more esoteric, and much scarier topic. However these decisions are the ones that will set students up for successful lives and careers. 

Challenges to good decision-making

There are a number of challenges facing school board decision-making. Initially, the biggest challenge is that school board members are expected to be functioning board members from the time they are elected with little to no understanding of how school board governance works. This is like jumping on a fast-moving train.

Often, school board candidates make promises in order to get elected, but these promises cannot be kept due to the roles and responsibilities of school board members outlined under the law. Perhaps what they promised to do is outside the scope of the board (e.g., firing a teacher), or they fail to get enough votes to pass a proposal. They need to perform well early in order to look competent to those who voted them in.

Furthermore, school boards have become increasingly politicized, with heated discourse and controversial decisions that often draw personal attacks creating a new challenge that even experienced school board members haven’t faced previously. Some of this is due to the need to follow state law while also representing the community interest — these two stances do not always line up. This politicization and strife have impacted public perception of school board efficacy, with some believing that school boards should no longer be in charge of schools and should be disbanded altogether.

In order to avoid that outcome, boards need to examine the quality of their meetings and demonstrate student-focused decisions informed by data.

A formula for data-driven decision-making

A short, simple formula for decision-making is the 3 Cs:

  1. Clarify
  2. Consider
  3. Choose

While this formula seems simple, it gives a systematic, straightforward structure to the decision-making cycle.


Clearly identify the decision to be made or the problem to be solved. Ensure that everyone is clear on the problem and what the board is voting on. Recently, a board was voting on approval of a Value Limitation Agreement that would cap the value of a proposed solar farm until it was operational. The proposal was allowed by law, and frequently used to incentivize businesses.

The discussions ranged from philosophical ideas about solar farms to traffic that might be created, to whether such agreements were fair to private citizens that might want to do something similar. The board was not voting to allow the business, but simply to approve the taxing proposal put in front of them.

Good agenda creation with appropriate supporting documents can help clarify problems and lead to better decision-making.


Think collaboratively about the data surrounding each possible option and how those choices might impact students. Consider the positive and negative consequences for each choice, using data and clarifying documents that illustrate student impact to guide you.

In the above example, fees paid to the district would help student programs. A cost benefit chart provided in the agenda materials would help board members see the value to students.

Attaching the legal references that detail why these types of agreements are permitted under the tax code could also help assuage any concerns the board might have about maintaining ethical practices.


Choose the best answer that maintains the guardrails of policy while moving forward for students. In the end, all board decisions should be decided by what is best for students of the district.

Providing data that indicates the impact on students — whether it be financial, educational, opportunities, etc. — is always the best practice This means board decisions are more likely to reflect a focus on improving student outcomes.

Best practices for public boards for decision-making

School boards typically make decisions through a structured process that involves deliberation and voting. However, it's the procedures leading up to and following a meeting that set the board up for best decision-making opportunities.

  1. Agenda preparation: Before each meeting, the board's agenda is prepared by the board chair and superintendent in collaboration with other board members. Keeping student-focused items on the agenda is central to good decisions. The inclusion of good data for board members to review in advance of the meeting also fosters essential preparation for high-level decisions.
  2. Public notice: The meeting agenda is made public to inform the community about topics that will be discussed. This allows members of the community to attend and provide input or listen to deliberations. Technology makes it easier to meet legal deadlines and keep the public informed.
  3. Reports and presentations: Before making decisions, the board will receive reports, presentations  and data from district staff or external experts. These reports are key to providing information and analysis to help board members understand the issues at hand. Having reports available early means that board members have the opportunity to digest the information and be well prepared for better discussions
  4. Discussion and deliberation: Board members engage in discussions and deliberations on each agenda item. They may ask questions, seek clarifications, share their perspectives, and exchange ideas. The purpose is to ensure that all viewpoints are considered before reaching a decision, and that decisions are grounded in the available data.
  5. Voting: Once the discussions and deliberations are complete, board members vote publicly on each agenda item. This is a board member’s essential responsibility. Keeping the public informed of these votes creates community trust.
  6. Policy review: In addition to making decisions on specific issues, school boards also review and revise policies that govern district operations. The pace of change in technology, as well as political and legal decisions, means that board members must stay apprised of policy changes.
  7. Record keeping: Detailed minutes or records of each board meeting are maintained to document the discussions, decisions, and actions taken. These records serve as an official account of the board's activities, and are legal public documents that require meticulous attention.

It's important to note that the decision-making process can vary depending on the specific dynamics of each school board. What does not vary is the need for good information and data in an easily searchable format, so board members are equipped to make the right decisions for the students in their community. Your kids are counting on you — and we can help.

As you work together to make those key decisions at your board meetings, here is a quick guide to better questioning techniques. You can also learn more about Diligent Community and what it can do for your school board.