Headshot of Monika Moulin
Sepideh Yeoh Headshot
Daryl Camp
BY MONIKA MOULIN, Sepideh Yeoh AND Daryl Camp

Boardwise is a forum for board members and superintendents across the state to share questions about governance and board–superintendent relations. Send your questions to boardwise@csba.org. Have governance team questions that require personal attention? Reach out to CSBA for a customized Governance Consulting Workshop with our experts at gcs@csba.org.

Fostering a collaborative, functional board culture
Dear Boardwise: How do you create a collaborative board culture that minimizes micromanagement of the meetings by the board president?

Monika: District bylaws do a respectable job of spelling out the board president’s responsibilities and duties. Bylaws alone, however, do not inform and aid board presidents in the key role of fostering, nurturing and collaborating to conduct the district’s business in a cohesive way. This approach is the hallmark of high-performing governance teams. Board presidents who routinely show mindfulness illustrate elevated levels of success in their role. They recognize they are the board’s presiding officer — not the board’s ruler or dictator.

Seasoned board presidents know their duties go beyond just calling meetings to order and ensuring the Brown Act is followed. “Being a board president takes skill to oversee an unruly crowd, it takes finesse to allow each board member time to speak, and it takes patience to keep the meeting going when emotions are high,” said Calaveras Unified School District Board President Sherri Reusche.

Education guru, former CSBA executive director and author Davis Campbell observes in his book The Governance Core, co-authored with Michael Fullan, that “you can walk into a boardroom and within a few minutes determine whether this is a cohesive, high-performing board or not.” He notes that when there is cohesion, you find an atmosphere of professionalism, trust and respect, illustrating that members are relaxed and function as a team. The board president cannot set this — rather it comes from the group itself through its culture, communication practices and norms.

Staying focused on the benefits of keeping and supporting a collegial and cooperative atmosphere is a proven way to aid boards by “staying out of the weeds.” Both data and informal observation seem to show that if the presiding officer skillfully steers the board meeting’s discussions and deliberations solidly in pursuit of mission-aligned goals to enhance student achievement, the possibility of veering off-course into the realm of micromanaging is much less likely.

“The role of the board president carries a lot of responsibility, but it can be very rewarding when time is taken to craft the art,” Reusche said.

Multiple people holding individual jigsaw puzzle pieces
Sepideh: There is much evidence supporting the practice of fostering a positive and collaborative culture in organizations, that in turn, promotes well-being among its members, leading to productivity. In a December 2022 Forbes online article, Pragya Agarwal, a behaviour and data scientist, shares, “Positive workplace culture improves teamwork, raises morale, increases productivity and efficiency, and enhances retention of the workplace.”

Culture has two segments: the big culture and the little culture. The big culture comprises the organization’s vision, mission and core values. In local educational agency board governance, these values serve as direction-setting documents that guide all district initiatives, programs and decisions. Highly effective governance teams spend the necessary time to craft a meaningful vision, mission and core values that represent their community needs. Such documents are critical in keeping the focus on what matters most, which is particularly important during crucial conversations and turbulent periods.

A well-crafted vision statement articulates the desired future state for the district or county office of education and should be founded on their respective core values and beliefs. Furthermore, a clear and concise vision statement provides direction, serving as a compass guiding the district’s efforts with focus and intentionality. The mission statement lays out the steps needed to achieve the desired vision. It is the organization’s purpose for existence.

When developing an LEA’s mission and vision, it is important for the board to begin by establishing specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely (SMART) goals. These are accompanied by an action plan (developed by district staff under the supervision of the superintendent) that illustrates a shared vision. Building a process to regularly revisit goals, vision and mission statements ensures relevancy and accuracy in a fast-paced world. It is also important to communicate these ideals with all educational partners, thereby establishing a sense of trust and transparency, which contributes to a healthy, collaborative and positive culture.

Daryl: Establishing a collaborative board culture is necessary to improve the effectiveness of a governance team. Although the board president is in an ideal position to impact culture, every member of the governance team can contribute to the establishment of a collaborative board culture.

Outside of a board meeting, trustees and the superintendent may benefit from spending time getting to know each other during one-on-one conversations. These informal conversations are not meant to avoid provisions in the Brown Act but instead serve the purpose of building relationships and collegiality outside of the regularly scheduled board meetings. Knowing each other as individuals can lead to a more collaborative culture among the governance team. When members of the governance team get to know each other, then they are in a better position to have difficult conversations when making complex decisions. The key is to understand the person and the experiences that shape their perspectives in a thoughtful and respectful way, contributing to enhanced opportunities to collaborate or disagree productively.

Governance teams can take intentional and proactive steps to create a positive, productive and collaborative environment for regular board meetings. Effective governance teams regularly convene special board meeting workshops and study sessions to develop a collaborative environment where the governance team and the LEA can flourish. During board workshops, effective governance teams regularly review, revise and assess governance protocols and meeting norms, which provide greater clarity of expectations regarding how the board operates. Topics may include how the board will collaborate during meetings and how trustees will interact with one another, the superintendent and/or staff.  Additionally, effective governance teams may want to schedule regular study sessions to learn more deeply about the various elements of a school district. Some boards schedule regular study sessions to collaborate and better understand the district’s fiscal situation, student success indicators, and staffing trends and patterns.

Creating and supporting a culture of collaboration takes a lot of time and work. Effective governance teams will take the time to develop relationships and will regularly invest in growing as a team.