My View: School board must work as a team | Chalkboard Project

My View: School board must work as a team

Thursday, August 17, 2017 Carol Turner

Reprinted with permission from the author. First appeared as an opinion piece in the Portland Tribune on August 08, 2017.

The first task of the new Portland board is to become a functioning team. This board will need our support as it tackles many critical challenges, including hiring a new superintendent.

The new Portland Public Schools School Board is beginning its work this month. Three new members have been sworn in and the total of seven members now have 12 years of accumulated board experience.

As a former PPS Board member who served for 12 years, and a longtime citizen whose children attended and now grandchildren attend PPS, I look to this current board to provide the leadership desperately needed to move the district forward for the benefit of all students. It must overcome the reported caustic environment and animosity of the recent past. 

While on the board, I became curious about how such groups function in a manner that leads to successful, sustained change. Since then, I have learned about the substantial research indicating that teams are essential to increasing productivity and effectiveness, whether in for-profit, nonprofit or public sector organizations. I think that this framework offers a model for an effective school board. 

So, what exactly is a team? Patrick Lencioni, a nationally respected expert in executive team development, describes a team as being a "relatively small number of people (anywhere from three to 12) that shares common goals as well as the rewards and responsibilities for achieving them. Team members readily set aside their individual or personal needs for the greater good of the group."

Certainly, as a board member, I did not know what was required to achieve such collaboration. Research shares that the right conditions for team effectiveness include:

  • A commonly held compelling goal
  • A strong structure with clear norms for acceptable conduct and members accepting the needed responsibility
  • A supportive context with the resources, information and training needed
  • A shared mindset, with team members having a strong common identity and that they "readily share information with one another and understand one another's constraints and context." (Hass and Mortensen in Harvard Business Review June, 2016)

Any of us who has been a member of a team personally knows how difficult it is to achieve those conditions. Lencioni believes that the essential quality that underpins all successful team work is a state of trust, in which team members "are comfortable being open with one another, leaving no room for suspicion or fear of retaliation." In addition, trust includes integrity (congruity between thought, action and deed) and competence in needed skills. Such a level of trust then sets the stage that allows for productive, passionate and respectful debate of diverse ideas and then builds to commitment to the decisions, being accountable and focusing on results. 

At the same time, a school board is unique. The members are elected by citizens and do not have to meet specific job requirements. In Oregon, board members serve voluntarily and are not paid. The meetings are public, so do not easily allow for building a state of trust.

The multiple forces of the needs of students, employees and the larger community are complex and often compete with each other. A school board is self-directed, without the benefit of a professional manager who holds the team members accountable.

To top it off, the hours are long and there is often little tangible reward, with constituents looking over their shoulders (and via social media) to criticize their decisions. 

Even with these challenging characteristics, the work of a school board is so critical that it must be effective. That's why we elect them. Board members may be voted in by constituents with varying agendas, and rigid voting blocks can be too readily formed.

However, the true power of the board comes when the members reconcile the differences, work as a team and achieve a strong consensus. 

How do we as citizens know if this team is effective? Hass and Mortensen present the classic criteria for evaluating a team, which are applicable to examining a school board:

  • Are the customers (i.e. citizens) happy with the output — with its quality, quantity and delivery?
  • Re: collaborative ability, do the team's dynamics help the board work well together?
  • Are the individual team members improving their knowledge, skills and abilities re: their roles of providing governance, oversight and strategic direction to the district?

The first task of the new Portland board is to become a functioning team. This board will need our support as it tackles many critical challenges, including hiring a new superintendent. In turn, the children of Portland also need us, as citizens, to do our job: that is, to hold the board accountable for its work. The above criteria provide us the ability to judge its work and we wish the new board all the best as it begins this work. As the board succeeds, all of us in Portland will benefit.

Carol Turner served on the Portland Public Schools Board and was chairwoman for three terms, was president of Oregon School Boards Association and presently is an organization development consultant.    

  • School Leadership
  • Accountability

Chalkboard on Twitter

Follow Us for Useful Information About Education in Oregon