by Steve Ladd, Arati Nagaraj, Sepideh Yeoh

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

This year, in addition to our column regulars, Deb Dudley and Luan Burman Rivera, we are welcoming new consultants to the column. Consultants Sepideh Yeoh and Steve Ladd were recently introduced in columns earlier this year. This issue introduces Arati Nagaraj, a board member of the Saratoga Union School District since 2010. She is a Governance Consultant with CSBA’s Governance Consulting Services, developing customized board development workshops for governance teams.

Ensuring board member engagement

Dear BoardWise,

There is a board member on our board who is disengaged and uninterested. This is particularly noticeable at board meetings when this member opens their meeting packet minutes before we start. How do we address this issue?

Steve Ladd: “Prior planning prevents poor performance” is an adage that is often provided as a motivation to ensure that individuals are prepared before they undertake any particular responsibility. As a board member, being prepared is not only imperative, it is also a responsibility for the collective governance team.

Board members have been elected to serve in the best interest of their students, staff and community at large. In taking the oath of office, each member affirms that he/she is willing to accept and perform the duties associated with the office. In order to bring this commitment to fruition, each board member must be mindful that his/her duty includes proper preparation.

On an individual level, being prepared is about attending and positively engaging others during board meetings. In order to do this, each board member must read and comprehend the agenda and materials in advance of the meeting. If there are questions about any subject(s) on the agenda, then that person should initiate a discussion with the superintendent prior to the board meeting.

However, there is much more to being prepared in the service of the district and community than reviewing meeting materials. Board members must also be ready to invest intellectual and emotional energy, including:

Respectfully listening to other board members, students, staff and community members

Building a strong working relationship with fellow board members

Acknowledging that the authority of a board member rests in the actions by the full board

Building a productive working and professional relationship with the superintendent

Attending district/county office of education and school functions, including graduation ceremonies, sporting events, visual and performing events, equity walks, Knowledge Bowls, etc.

The collective responsibility of a board member and governance team requires being mindful that preparation is a foundational element to the success of both the individual and the collective board.

Arati Nagaraj: As acknowledged, being prepared is a shared responsibility of the board. To be effective as a whole, members must be able to complete the responsibilities of a board member while working together.

The first step to building a strong and collaborative governance team is to review your unity of purpose as a team. The unity of purpose is the common focus, overarching goals, and the core values, beliefs and principles in which the governance team members share in common about students, the school district/COE and public education. It provides the governance team with the answer to why you’re doing what you’re doing, and for whom you’re doing this work of governance.

The next step is to ensure that the team collectively understands the roles and responsibilities of the board and of the superintendent. The governance team does this review together and may look to CSBA Sample Board Bylaw 9200 as a resource. Clarity on roles and responsibilities will promote a positive, productive culture and ensure that your team is aligned with your defined unity of purpose.

Lastly, it is important for board members to recognize that each team member contributes something unique and valuable. This could be a distinct perspective, skill set or a particular working style which will enrich the governance team. Take time to learn what each member’s strengths are and focus on drawing upon them to have a strong and effective team.

Intentionally referencing your governance team’s unity of purpose, bylaws and protocols, and mission will ensure that you all are prepared to work collaboratively to best serve the students of your district/COE.

Sepideh Yeoh: Steve spoke about the individual responsibility of board members to be mindful and prepared, and Arati spoke about the governance team’s responsibility as a collective. The board self evaluation is the tool to help board members keep themselves accountable as an individual and as a team. It answers the question: Are you doing what you said you would do? It is an important mechanism which demonstrates that you as a board are agreeing to hold yourselves accountable and are committed to continuous learning.

The results for individual board members and the collective board provide direction on the next steps to becoming a more effective team. Once you have completed the evaluation and have the report, the board may need to schedule a special open-session meeting to review and to discuss: How do we analyze the results, and how can we use this new knowledge to become a more effective board? Critical points to focus on with the report are:

It provides the board and superintendent with valuable perception data, revealing the range of perceptions among board members regarding the performance of the board.

Focus on the areas that are important to your district/COE and how they relate to student achievement. Then agree on three to five areas you want to work on as a board.

As you listen to the views of your fellow board members, try to listen to understand and not respond, you don’t have to agree on every point but you need to understand.

Set goals that are specific, measurable and time limited for improving in the areas you identified to work on.

To support the goals you set, schedule board development workshops throughout the year and add them to your governance calendar.

A governance team which is mindful and prepared will be a more successful team. For more support, CSBA Governance Consultant Services are available to your team.