By Diana Baker Freeman
Congratulations… and Surprise!
Shortly after being elected to the school board in my community, it came time for my first board meeting. I hurried home in order to have dinner before the meeting started. I got to the meeting, it was called to order, we dispensed with some cursory business, and then adjourned for a short dinner break. At the next meeting a couple of weeks later for a budget workshop, I intentionally did not eat so I could eat with the rest of the board members, but there was no brief adjournment and no dinner break. It was explained to me that we shared a meal at the regular board meetings, but not at the workshops. I drank lots of coffee and tried to stay focused despite having an empty stomach.
When a Meal Is More Than Just a Meal
The act of eating together, sharing a meal — breaking bread — is a cultural event. Somewhere between “Pass the salt, please!” and “Can I get you something to drink?” smiles are exchanged, pleasantries are traded and the basis of a relationship that goes beyond board meetings is forged. In an elected governmental board, these opportunities are few and far between. Public boards are governed by the Open Meetings Act or Sunshine Laws. These laws dictate how and when board members can gather and communicate. While board members are permitted to interact socially, many do not do so out of concern for adherence to the Open Meeting Laws. Casual conversations held over a meal in a board meeting are frequently the only opportunity that board members get to develop insights and understanding of their fellow board members — information that will help them have a good working relationship during their years on the board. Turning down a meal may not have overt consequences, but in the subconscious process of “sizing people up,” even something this innocent can create a negative perception that the new board member has to overcome.
Basic Legal Requirements
Most states have laws governing what is required to be included in New Member Orientations. These may include things like budget overviews, an examination of goals for the organization, a discussion of policy and laws that pertain to the district or municipality, and information regarding the previously discussed Open Meeting Laws that dictate how a public governmental body must function. Many state legislatures have dictated how many hours and what topics must be covered. Missouri and New York both require new board members to have an orientation in their first year, but New York mandates that at least six hours must be spent on the fiduciary responsibilities of the board. In Texas, new board members must have completed training on the Education Code and the Open Meetings Act, as well as a local orientation that covers goals for the district, budget and accountability results at a minimum within the first 120 days of their board service.
Beyond the Basics
While legal requirements may dictate minimum baseline information that a district must include in the New Member Orientation, what it takes to make a board function effectively is something altogether different. Making new members feel welcome on the board may prove difficult. It is possible that in the process of campaigning, the new member may have cast negative aspersions on the board, and thereby, on sitting board members. This creates tension immediately that stands in the way of the board moving forward with its work. During a campaign, it is possible that a new member made promises that they are not capable of delivering on. The question is often whether to let the new member who made brash promises and condemning statements on the campaign trail find out the hard way that the promises are impossible to keep and the statements didn’t reflect the reality of governance work. They then have to answer to the voters who have unrealistic expectations. However, this new member is here to stay for a term of two, three or four years at a minimum. Helping that board member communicate more correctly and completely to the voters, who are expecting nothing short of a coup, can be a good way to start bridging divides and building positive working relationships.
Along with the soft skills of mitigating expectations, a good deal of what needs to be conveyed are the creature comforts and the seemingly insignificant details that make a new board member feel welcome and comfortable in their new role.
One board member recounted his first board meeting. He entered the boardroom via the back door, the one he had always used when attending meetings prior to joining the board. He made his way up the aisle, speaking to people as he walked. All the other board members used the door at the front of the boardroom. They felt like he was trying to make a statement by walking through the audience; in reality, he was just doing what he had always done. Habits, practices and expectations all create a culture. For someone new to the board, innocent missteps can convey an unintended message. Refusing to share a meal, coming in via the wrong door — stepping out of norms in general — may send the message that the new board member is not a team player. Thorough information offered in a timely manner is the key to bringing the new member onto the team as soon as possible.
As you prepare to welcome new members onto your board, consider housing documents electronically for easy and equitable access. The yearly budget, accountability results and board operating procedures are examples of documents that can easily be added to an online format. The Strategic Plan section of the Library in BoardDocs is the best way to list, as well as track and report, board goals. The new board member can spend time perusing not only the goals and objectives, but agenda items that are tied to those goals. A document that may not exist, but that could easily be created and then housed online, is a procedures manual that includes informal, as well as formal, procedures — such as, where and when the board enters the boardroom, where the restrooms are and when breaks typically happen, meal and eating practices are examples mentioned here that could be addressed in this document. It should also include the more formal procedures for things like visiting district campuses, communicating with parents and community members, and expectations for travel and training.
For a board to be successful, all members need to feel like an equal part of the team. New members will encounter many pitfalls before they fully learn the pertinent rules, procedures and laws. Bringing them up to speed as quickly as possible not only helps the new members, but in the long run, it helps the district. Disruptions in leadership have been shown to negatively affect students. When it comes to creating a unified team of individuals, it is best to remember we can’t fall into “us versus them” thinking, because in reality, there is only “us.” When one of us is successful, we all succeed.