I believe that being a school board member or city council member is a difficult job. Elected officials are often criticized for their work, for their work styles, and for products of their work. It is the responsibility of school board members and students see council members to work thoughtfully, and make the best decisions possible. After running retreats and strategic planning and goal setting sessions for elected bodies over the past 18 years, I have three observations and suggestions.

1) Stay up on the balcony (and stay off of the dance floor)

Even great elected bodies tend to migrate toward detail, and can forget about the big picture. Better boards and councils contain members who will encourage each other to “pull up” and get out of the weeds. This has to be done by all members, not just the board chair, Council President, or mayor. The primary reason that boards and councils migrate down to the dance floor is because details are easier to understand, and discuss. I have one counsel that has a $200 million budget. 200 million is a big number, and it’s pretty tough to get your brain around a number that big. It is way easier to talk about details within expenditures. Every elected official needs to remember that the discussion needs to stay at 50,000 feet. If you want detail, see your school superintendent, or your city administrator prior to the board meeting. Then help everybody else keep the discussion at a high level.

2) Discover a lot more before you make a decision (measure twice, & cut once)

Great elected bodies are always looking for more information; not to catch people, or create guilt, but to more clearly understand what they know, what they don’t know, and where they need more information. Great school board members, and great city Council members, frequently ask the school superintendent or the city administrator to bring them information from a range of sources that may include:

  • Similar sized organizations that have successfully solved similar problems
  • “Best practice” ideas from membership organizations, vendors, or colleagues
  • Data sets and or estimates and ideas from department heads were school principals.

A school board that I worked with recently had noticed a sharp uptick in suspensions and expulsions. The district had recently undergone a change in demographics, and what had been a predominantly white school district now had many students of color, and many nontraditional families. The board asked the school administrators to take 90 days and create a white paper that would help the board better understand the problem, and potential solutions.

The white paper that was created contains three sections:

  • Statement of the problem (current data & data trends)
  • Successful strategies from school districts in similar situations
  • A few recommendations.

The board was then able to get into a focused discussion, and select better possible strategies that were much more accurately defined than some of the public opinion that board members were receiving. This is a perfect example about a board knowing that it didn’t know enough, but specifying what they needed before they could make a good decision.

3) Spend more time identifying what is needed (and less time on how you want it done)

What are the most frequent causes of micromanagement of hired administrators is board members’ desire for input on how goals will be accomplished, and how work will be done. I recently worked with one city Council were a council member vehemently disagreed with the oil change schedule for city snowplows and trucks. While he may have been well intended, his need to get down in the weeds cause a tremendous amount of conflict within the Council, and caused the affected department head to fear for his job.  Again, these concerns, while misguided, are fairly easy to understand.

Recently, I worked with the school board were a board member was very concerned about not being able to go through a Principal’s personnel file. This board member believed that the elementary principal was not doing a good job. When I asked the board member how he came to that conclusion, he mentioned that he had been told that by a couple of employees in the building. He was also very upset with the superintendent, because he was not allowed to look in the file.  I asked the board if they had a policy regarding administrators, department heads, & program managers being evaluated annually. They did not know. I suggested that they needed to find out if that policy existed, and if the superintendent had been conducting timely, annual evaluations. They could then ask if administrators were receiving positive evaluations, and meeting the goals of their schools, departments, or programs. This would allow them to stay at a higher level, and make sure that work was getting done. If the answers were not acceptable, they could then proceed down another road of questioning. This is another example of staying at a higher level, and not getting caught up in the weeds. The board clearly understood, and knew what to do prior to the next meeting.