“When we think about board culture, we’re really thinking of team culture.”
“One of the most important responsibilities of a school board is to ensure that the public has trust in their ability to provide the best education for students.”
“I would say it’s everyone’s responsibility. Every member of the board’s responsibility to keep a pulse on the board’s culture.”
“Nobody has to start from scratch, building their board culture. You have this foundation that starts you off in a big head start.”
“We have to really consider our approach to welcoming and assimilating new members to the team because it has a huge impact on our culture. And it has a huge impact on our productivity and how successful we can be in supporting the district and providing the best education for all students.”
“On September 27th, 2021, we are having our Start Strong onboarding event where every attending district will receive PSBA’s onboarding manual, the first year at-a-glance, some team building activities and some other supporting materials.”
“I often say that the most important decision when you are deciding who’s going to be your board president . . . isn’t really which faction of the board they align with, what their personal philosophies are. But can they chair a good meeting? And do they have the courage to really protect, to be a defender of board culture and proper decorum?”
“In the context of board organization, it’s also important to remember that you may elect a president annually but empowering that board president to do what needs to be done, both for the benefit of the board’s culture, the benefit of the board getting its work done, for the benefit of the district, that needs to be continuous.”
“We consider all members a leader in keeping a pulse on the board’s culture and making sure that it’s a healthy, productive, successful, effective culture, ultimately for the success of the school district.”
Q: Well, can you start by describing what is board culture? Define that term, if you would, please.
A (Will): Sure. So when we think about board culture, we’re really thinking of team culture. And the common saying is culture is simply how we get things done. It’s really how the board operates. So in regards to a board culture, we’re really looking at is the board effective? Is the board productive? Is the board successful in meeting the responsibilities within its position in the district and supporting the district?
Q: So Will, what’s the significance or impact of a school board’s culture on the overall school district?
A (Will): Right. So a school board is part of the district’s leadership team of 10. It’s the nine locally elected directors and the superintendent working together as the team of 10. And when you think of culture, we often hear that culture starts at the top. Culture starts with leadership. There’s a great quote from the National School Boards Association. It comes from their Key Work of School Boards Guidebook and it says, “School district leadership needs to pay attention to the culture it exhibits and exemplifies because this culture permeates the classrooms directly affecting teaching.”
So when we think about when a school board meets at a public meeting, the way in which they interact, the way in which they operate, the way in which they get things done has a real impact on the district — not only the board, the administration, the district staff, but the student’s learning and also the public’s trust and the board’s ability to get the work done. And that’s really important when we think about culture.
One of the most important responsibilities of a school board is to ensure that the public has trust in their ability to provide the best education, or supporting the district in providing the best education for students. And when we have an ineffective culture and an unhealthy culture, it typically can lead to the erosion of the public’s trust, which then makes the board’s job that much more difficult. And then you’ll see that there’s people from the community that actively want to join the board because they think they can do a more effective job.
A (Stuart): And dysfunction on a board, which happens when you don’t have a healthy culture or a productive culture, radiates downward into the administration and the district staff. And so those effects have an impact far beyond just the public’s perception.
Q: Yeah. Broad reaching impacts, it sounds like from what you’ve described. Who is responsible for keeping a pulse of the board’s culture and then addressing, or at least helping to address the issues as they arise?
A (Will): So as we think of a school board as a team of 10, I would say it’s everyone’s responsibility. Every member of the board’s responsibility to keep a pulse on the board’s culture. And then in regards to whose responsibility is to address issues as they arise, the leader of the board is the board president. So it is their responsibility to, again, make sure that issues are addressed when we’re thinking of a healthy, productive culture.
We can’t sweep things under the rug and act like they don’t exist and they’re not there. So it’s really important for the board presidents to take that leadership role when there are issues in the way in which the board operates and works together to address it. But the first part of the question, everyone on the board, it’s their responsibility to keep a pulse of the board’s culture.
Q: Yeah. Great. That’s good information. So, PSBA has something called PSBA’s Principles for Governance and Leadership. How does that support a board in their work and their culture?
A (Will): Right. So the Principles for Governance and Leadership, we have seven principles with 31 associated actions. And it’s really a framework, a guide for effective, successful, productive school boards across Pennsylvania. And we really use this as the framework for our culture. I know Stuart had mentioned as we were talking, preparing for this podcast, that really the principles are the foundation of the board’s culture.
And when we talk about issues arising as the board president, if you have to have a conversation with a director about an action, something they did, point it back to the principles. That’s really your guide, your framework, for successful school boards.
A (Stuart): And to tie it into what we talked about a moment ago, everybody is responsible for helping to maintain and establish board culture. And using the Principles for Governance and Leadership as a foundation, give each member of the board something to point to to say, “Hey, we need to stick to these particular aspects of how our culture should operate. These are things we’ve agreed should guide us in our work and make us more successful.”
So when there are deviations, anybody should speak up but primarily, the board president’s the first. And the members need to hold the board president accountable for doing that job, for doing that job effectively.
A (Will): And I would like to add that we encourage boards across Pennsylvania to adopt the principles as part of their policy. To check to see if a board has adopted it as part of their policy would be the 011 policy within their local board procedures, their 000 section. Not to get too specific, but adopt the principles as part of policy.
And then also any district or board that’s a member of PSBA can annually take our board self-assessment, which is centered around the principles. So, you take the board self-assessment survey. Each member of the board takes the survey, you get your results. And then you can have a conversation around what are our strengths and meeting of the principles and where are our areas for improvement and meeting what’s outlined in the principles.
A (Stuart): So nobody has to start from scratch, building their board culture. You have this foundation that starts you off in a big head start.
Q: Right. And that sort of annual confirmation or readoption is kind of making sure that boards keep it really front of mind as they operate. Is that correct?
A (Stuart): Well I would say it’s even more than that. The self-assessment process is not just talking about the principles in the abstract. It’s a process by which the board self-examines and says, “Are we doing this? Do we have work to do to make sure we’re doing this the way it should be done?”
Q: Making sure it’s put into practice.
A (Stuart): Exactly.
A (Will): I was going to say is what we recommend is after they take the survey, they get their board self-assessment results. And again, outlining where their strengths and their areas for improvement and then coming together and setting some board goals around how a board operates based on the survey feedback.
Let’s say, there’s a principle known as communicate clearly. If the board scored low in that category, they could have a discussion and create some goals around how they can more effectively communicate clearly as a team with the administration, with the school community, and so on. So, board self-assessment centered around the principles is a great service that PSBA provides. And again, every member of district of PSBA can take it annually.
Q: Great. Good to know. So each of the nine elected school board directors holds their seats for a term of four years, barring special circumstances. And with the superintendent of each district, that makes a team of 10. The team of 10 is changing regularly, cyclically. What is the importance of establishing onboarding procedures and orientation for new members of the board? And how about also mentoring programs? How does that fit in?
A (Will): I’ll start with pointing back to board policy. If following PSBA’s numbering policy system, the 004 membership policy should outline orientation, new member orientation. Who is responsible typically is the superintendent and the board president and also the information they are responsible for providing. Reviewing that policy and thinking about all of the information a new director has to learn when they join the team of 10, simply put, more needs done.
So we recommend starting with orientation, but then considering a comprehensive onboarding process. What I mean by that is start with orientation, but don’t end with orientation. Once someone’s seated after the organization meeting in December, have your initial new member orientation. But then have a three-month check-in, have a six-month check-in, a nine-month check-in, a 12-month check-in.
We recommend that because if you consider how people learn, if I come to the board and I don’t know much about education, I don’t know much about the school board and the new member orientation, you tell me everything. Well, a lot of that information is in one ear, out the other. But after a three-month check-in and I’ve had experience in two or three board meetings, and then we review some information from orientation, but then maybe you add some more information, I can better grapple with it and grasp it and understand it because I have that experience.
And then we made it a six-month check-in. Again, I have more experience to review previous information, but then to take in more information. So as I think about the team changing so often, we have to really consider our approach to welcoming and assimilating new members to the team because it has a huge impact on our culture. And it has a huge impact on our productivity and how successful we can be in supporting the district and providing the best education for all students.
A (Stuart): And in my mind, a good onboarding program will also include what I like to call learning plan so that for each new member of the board, they are introduced and introduced to where many of the places they can learn more about the business of the school district, and the business of the board, the functions of the board, including all of the training programs that we have available from PSBA publications and other resources, as well as those that may exist at the local level.
And if each new member of the board has a roadmap for saying, “Here’s what my goals are for learning over the next three months, six months or a year,” that will also contribute greatly to the success of that onboarding program.
A (Will): And I will add that in 2019 PSBA created what’s called the new school director onboarding manual. And within that manual, we also created what’s known as the first year at-a-glance. And that at-a-glance is really a new director, a new member learning plan. So it outlines what should be covered at orientation, who’s responsible for covering which information, typically superintendent or board president. But then again, at each check-in, it identifies what information could be covered again as we think of providing information in increments, rather than all at once.
I do want to plug that we are holding that event again this year. So on September 27th, 2021, we are having our Start Strong onboarding event where every attending district will receive PSBA’s onboarding manual, the first year at-a-glance, some team building activities and some other supporting materials. But as I go back to saying that what’s outlined in board policy simply isn’t enough, as the organization or the Association for School Boards in Pennsylvania, we have created materials to assist, to improve, to help in your approach to onboarding new directors.
So again, September 27th, 2021, we’re holding our event where everyone’s going to receive the onboarding manual, first year at-a-glance, team building activities. And again, some other supporting materials as well.
Q: Great. Thank you. So, switching gears a little bit. Stuart, I’m going to turn this one to you. What is Robert’s Rules of Order and how does this fit into board culture?
A (Stuart): Well, Robert’s Rules of Order are not the only system of parliamentary procedure rules that boards can adopt. It’s certainly the most widely known and probably the most widely adopted. But the bottom line to any system of rules of parliamentary procedure really boils down to ensuring that the board is focused on one issue at a time and only one voice at a time is speaking. That’s really, basically what it’s all about.
And they’re designed to allow the board to accomplish the business before it effectively and in a manner that is clear what happened so that things operate, you get your business to the board done. That’s the purpose of those. But they also have very important impacts on board culture because embedded in Robert’s Rules or any other system of parliamentary procedure, certain rules of decorum, certain dos, and don’ts about treating each other with respect and courtesy.
And we list in the publication that PSBA published a number of years ago, The Essentials of Parliamentary Procedure- A Survival Guide for Pennsylvania School Directors. We list in there what we believe to be essential functions of a chairperson on the board. And those include setting and enforcing a tone of civility, courtesy and common purpose as well as other things. Maintaining decorum, calling inappropriate behavior out of order when it happens, quickly responding to lapses.
In any organization, there are sometimes lapses where you depart from the usual standards of conduct. It can happen in the heat of a moment, but it’s really critical that the chairperson and the other members holding each other and the chair accountable quickly move to correct those lapses. And Robert’s Rules or any system of parliamentary procedure gives the chairperson the tools to do that.
And so, I often say that the most important decision when you are deciding who’s going to be your board president and who chairs most of your meetings and the board vice president who steps in when the board president isn’t there to chair a meeting, isn’t really which faction of the board they align with, what their personal philosophies are. But can they chair a good meeting? And do they have the courage to really protect, to be a defender of board culture and proper decorum?
A (Will): And I just want to add to that fantastic overview from Stuart that there’s a lot of guidance on the books and board policy. So I never want to let an opportunity go where I can direct some attention to where this information is that. So in your 006 meetings policy or in a board 006 meetings policy, they’ll have which parliamentary procedure they follow. Typically, it’s Robert’s Rules of Order, Stuart said, but there’s others as well. So as again, you’re looking for the guidance either you’re on the board or you’re member of the public, these board policies are open or available to the public as well. So again, 006 outlines the guidance around public school board meetings.
Q: That’s good to note. I’m glad you mentioned that that is available publicly as well. And so, there’s something called school board reorganization and you’ve already touched upon the leadership of the board, but how does school board reorganization and board culture… What’s the interaction there?
A (Stuart): Well, the most important thing that happens every year for board organization, frequently referred to as reorganization, is election of the president and vice president of the board. And so when I talked a moment ago about what are the most important characteristics you should be looking for in those people are ones are not necessarily how they feel about any particular issue or who they align with on the board. Because really, the ultimate powers of the board president are somewhat limited and few.
Sometimes the board allows the powers of the board president to expand greatly because it’s just been that way or they allow it to happen. But in essence, the most important attributes that you want is somebody who knows how to run a good meeting, familiar with the applicable rules of procedure, and who has the courage to do what needs to be done when it comes time to protect the board’s culture, protect the decorum of the meetings and to correct lapses quickly and politely and gently.
A (Will): And if I could add, a lot of us have this fear of conflict. And when we’re working on a team, there’s going to be conflict. We can approach it and we can approach it in a way that’s healthy. So, it’s known as healthy conflict. So there’s ways in which we can have these conversations. When you’re a board president addressing issues, they don’t have to be fearful. I mean, there’s a strategic way of addressing this that, again, we can engage in healthy conflict as a team because that’s going to help us ultimately move forward and be more productive.
A (Stuart): I think in the context of board organization, it’s also important to remember that you may elect a president annually but empowering that board president to do what needs to be done, both for the benefit of the board’s culture, the benefit of the board getting its work done, for the benefit of the district, that needs to be continuous. Board members need to, throughout the course of the year, empower their chairperson to take care of the stuff that nobody should really disagree about.
Q: So in terms of board culture, we’ve kind of talked about the makeup of the board and the leadership. But in terms of board culture, all members are actually leaders. Tell us what is meant by that.
A (Will): So I’ll start and I’ll just go back to the quote that I shared at the beginning. “School district leadership needs to pay attention to the culture it exhibits and exemplifies because this culture permeates the classrooms directly affecting teaching. Every school director is in a leadership role. Every school director is part of the district leadership team of 10.”
So again, the way in which you approach the work, you work with your colleagues, the way you approach your work at board meetings. It all impacts not only the board’s culture, but the culture of the district. So again, as we consider all members are a leader in keeping a pulse on the board’s culture and making sure that it’s a healthy, productive, successful, effective culture, ultimately for the success of the school district.
Q: Yeah. Everybody’s got responsibility there then.
A (Stuart): Absolutely.
A (Will): And I just want to clarify, I mentioned this onboarding program that’s going to be held on September 27th, 2021. That program is for anyone who is in a leadership role, be it superintendent, board president, vice-president, who’s now considering how they’re going to welcome and assimilate new members after they’re elected in November. This event is for those who are in the leadership role, putting together their onboarding materials, their approach, their plan. It’s not necessarily for those who were recently elected again, it’s to prepare for the elections and the onboarding process.
Q: Good. Good clarification. And it will be interesting to see the outcomes of the November election. I know there’s a lot of discussion around that right now.
A (Will): I just want to plug again, as we think about onboarding, really consider what you want your new directors to say about the process once they join the team. We want them to feel valued. We want them to feel welcomed. We want them to feel like they are part of the team when they join. So again, as we’re talking about onboarding and culture, really think of your approach as you get ready for your team to change. Your culture doesn’t have to change, but the team dynamics will. So we have to think of how we welcome and assimilate new members to our team. And Annette, I promise I’m done.
A (Stuart): I just want to add one other thing about the principles for governance and leadership. It’s a great foundation. You don’t have to start from scratch. But boards should also understand as they’re looking at those and as they’re holding each other accountable to them, as they’re doing their board self-assessment. If there is something about the way the board did principles as written don’t come across with the same degree of understanding that the board would like, they’re not rigid. That boards are encouraged to customize them in a way that works well for them and better reinforces their board’s culture.
Q: That’s good to know. That it’s not expected to be a cookie cutter approach.
Stuart Knade, Esq. and Will Smeltzer
Stuart Knade is PSBA’s Chief Legal Officer and Will Smeltzer is a senior training manager at PSBA.
Essentials of Parliamentary Procedure
Start Strong: Onboarding New School Directors Event
In June, PSBA will open registration to the 2021 Start Strong: Onboarding New School Directors pre-conference event. Please hold the date for Monday, September 27 to attend. Watch PSBA communications for Start Strong registration information. Each district who registers for this event will receive a copy of PSBA’s Onboarding Manual both in binder form and digitally. Additional resources such as a leadership guide and the First-Year-At-A-Glance onboarding calendar will be provided to each Start Strong attendee. For those who cannot attend this event but still would like access to the PSBA copyrighted manual and materials, please reach out to PSBA’s Education and Training team to schedule a consultation. We anticipate the revised and improved manual will be ready by midsummer 2021. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information!