One certainty for school boards these days is that elections can shake things up.
“Even if your trustee position is not up for a vote, chances are you have some team members who will be on the ballot either in May or November, depending on your district,” said David Koempel, trustee engagement senior consultant for TASB’s Board Development Services. “Or perhaps an incumbent has decided not to run again, and you’re guaranteed to have some new faces joining your board. Whatever the situation, it’s good to be prepared for possible changes.”
How well school boards welcome and incorporate new members to their team can go a long way to ensuring a smooth transition for everyone. Of course, new people can mean new dynamics for a team of eight. Koempel noted that it’s important to take an approach that helps everyone feel comfortable and prepared to tackle the work ahead.
“It’s never easy being new, so I encourage trustees to recall what it was like when they first got elected to the board,” he said. “A little empathy and understanding can help set a positive tone.”
Getting New Trustees Up to Speed
Duncanville ISD Trustee Janice Savage-Martin said her school board had seen little change over the years, so when a new trustee was elected three years ago, “We really didn’t know what to do.”
Of course, that quickly changed as the board took steps to help its newest member get acclimated, including suggesting participation in TASB’s annual Summer Leadership Institute (SLI) designed to encourage team building, networking, and continuing education for both new and experienced trustees. They also looked to TASB, and its online resources, for additional support.
Challenges facing new board members are numerous. Not only do they need to learn the systems and processes around board meetings, but they may also need a crash course on complex public education topics, including school finance.
Tomball ISD (TISD) Board President Kathy Handler said her board has welcomed three new trustees since 2016. “One of the big things we try to do as soon as they’re sworn in is to go over our board operating procedures, including how meetings run, how to get items on the agenda, and how to interact with the community.”
But just as important to Handler's board is making sure there’s time to become acquainted. A team dinner is added into their regular board meeting schedule. “We always eat dinner together because we talk about everything but school board business,” she said. “We have a culture of wanting to get to know one another. It allows for a more cohesive board.”
Another strategy used in TISD is to pair up newer trustees with more experienced ones. That mentoring relationship gives time for questions, concerns, or any other issue, Handler said.
When Handler first ran for the TISD Board of Trustees in 2010, she was unopposed. She recalled the superintendent at the time inviting her in to start learning about the district before the election, including encouraging her to sit down with the district’s chief financial officer.
That type of head start may be helpful when an election is uncontested. Of course, candidates for school board should always feel welcome to attend school board meetings, which offer a great way to learn about the issues ahead of Election Day, Koempel said.
Even after nearly 12 years on the board, Handler said there is always more to learn. “I love being on the school board, but it can be challenging at times,” she said.
She remembers getting a great piece of advice her first year that she still relies on today: “One of the departing school board trustees said to me, ‘Don’t try to learn it all in one day.’”
New Board Member Resources
Share these resources with your new board members:
Sylvia Wood is the division director of communications for TASB.