How Not to Be a Terrible School Board Member: Lessons for School Administrators and Board Members


Richard E. Mayer

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    Who Is This Book for?

    If you are reading this book, you are probably interested in how school boards work. Maybe you are thinking of running for office, or perhaps you are a newly elected school board member. Maybe you have been serving on a school board for a while and are interested in doing the best possible job you can. Maybe you are a school administrator who is just trying to figure out what goes on inside the heads of your school board members. If you fall into any of those categories, or if you are just plain curious about how to make school boards work better, then this book is for you. In short, this book is for prospective, current, and past school board members and school administrators.

    How Did I Write This Book?

    In writing this book, I am supposing that you have just asked me something like this: “Hey, Richard, you've been a school board member since the beginning of time. What advice do you have for becoming a good school board member?” This book is my earnest attempt to answer your question.

    My approach is to let you in on the many ways you can do a terrible job as a school board member. It's not that I like focusing on bad behavior (although I must admit, it turned out to be more fun than I expected). Instead, my rationale is that focusing on terrible school board member moves is the fastest and most memorable way to help you learn how to be a good school board member. Even though the title talks about being a terrible school board member, my real goal is to help you see, by contrast, how a successful school board member operates.

    In short, I am taking a case-based approach in which I analyze 28 scenarios (or cases) that cover all the wisdom I have to offer—one for each of my 28 years on my local school board. Case-based learning is used in many professional programs, such as in business, law, medicine, and even teacher education. Research on learning by example has a strong and growing empirical research base. (I describe some of that research in my recently published textbook, Learning and Instruction, Second Edition.)

    Each scenario ends with a Lessons Learned section for board members, with advice for how to avoid becoming a terrible school board member and start on the road to becoming a successful one. In addition, each scenario ends with a special Superintendents’ Lessons Learned section, intended to help superintendents understand the predicaments that school board members get themselves into. I show how superintendents can help prevent board members from engaging in terrible boardsmanship, because helping the board look good and function properly is an unwritten part of each superintendent's job description. As board–superintendent collaboration is crucial for successful district operation, eliminating terrible board behavior is of interest to both board members and superintendents. If you are a board member or a school administrator, this book is intended to help you do your job better.

    A Word to School Administrators

    On the surface, it might appear that this book is written exclusively for school board members. However, as indicated in the subtitle, this book is directed equally at school administrators who work with school boards. In writing this book, I found that the roles of school board members and school administrators—particularly the superintendent—are so intertwined that it is impossible to talk about one without the other. Being a school administrator is an increasingly challenging job, and as administrators rise to the upper ranks in their district, a major part of their job involves working with the board. If you are a school administrator, this book is intended to give you some insights into what is going on in the minds of your board members and the many ways they can get themselves and the district into trouble. In short, if you are a school administrator whose job involves interacting with your school board, then this book is very much for you.

    Being a leader within the context of a school district requires a special appreciation of shared decision making. The success of a school district requires teamwork among board members and the superintendent. This book is intended to help you see the role of the board, the board president, and the superintendent in this collaboration.

    Why Did I Write This Book?

    Being a school board member is a unique and rewarding experience that allows you to be part of an amazing institution. Local school boards are a form of democracy—or more technically, a form of representative government—on a human scale. Decisions about how to educate a community's children are made at a local level. Citizens can confront the decision makers and tell them face-to-face exactly what they think. They can vote for candidates they like and against those they don't like. According to the National School Boards Association, there are 14,890 school boards in the United States alone, with 95,000 school board members.

    I have come to respect the institution of local school boards and the role they play in enabling high-quality education for children. I truly want school boards to work effectively so they can serve the communities in which they operate. However, effective school boards depend on effective school board members. In short, the success of any school board depends partly on the people who are elected to serve on them. In my experience, the overwhelming majority of school board members have good motives, but even people with good motives can make bad moves, even terrible moves. This book is dedicated to preventing situations in which your good intentions can lead to bad outcomes.

    During my 28 years on my local school board, I have had the opportunity to observe many instances of behavior by school board members that fell somewhat short of being exemplary, including a fair share of my own. “I should write a book,” I have often thought to myself, summarizing the various ways in which you can be a terrible school board member. This book reports my favorite 28 terrible habits—one for each of my years on the school board. All the events and people in this book are fictional, but they are inspired by things I have seen along the way in school boards with which I am familiar (including things I have done or considered doing). Although the specific laws and procedures may vary from one location to another, the general themes about terrible habits remain the same. My hope is that by analyzing these terrible habits with you, we will be able to create school boards that work for our communities.

    For board members, this book is intended to help you avoid engaging in terrible habits; for board presidents, this book is intended to help you deal with situations in which a board member is prone to engage in terrible habits; and for superintendents, this book is intended to help you do all you can to ensure than board members have the training and guidance they need to avoid doing something terrible. Although the title talks about “terrible” school board members, you will see that my goal is quite positive: to show you in a good-natured way how to help build an effective school board. If this book improves your effectiveness as a school board member, board president, or school administrator, even just a little bit, I will consider it a big success. I hope you will feel free to contact me at with your comments and suggestions (or even with terrible scenarios of your own).

    Should You Become a School Board Member?

    Why would anyone in their right mind want to run for their local school board? By running for office, you are pledging to do the following:

    • Attend lots of meetings —including regular board meetings, special board meetings, public hearings, and committee meetings (and if your board is as cost conscious as mine, don't expect the chairs to be very comfortable);
    • Read lots of material s—including agendas, backup documents, reports, manuals, contracts, online information, and even books (and you will certainly need more bookshelves or file cabinets at home to house all that fine reading);
    • Listen to lots of public input —at regular board meetings, public hearings, and special meetings (and sometimes the speaker's presentation style can be confrontational, insulting, or painfully on target);
    • Communicate with the public —on the phone, by e-mail, at schools, on the street, in kitchens, in coffee shops, and occasionally even by postal mail (so essentially you can be called upon wherever you go and anytime of the day or night);
    • Make lots of school visits —including visits to classrooms and with principals, teachers, staff, and even with the folks in the central office (but you'll need to be sure not to have favorites);
    • Attend special school events —such as school graduations, performances, and assemblies;
    • Attend conferences and education-related events —such as conferences by regional, state, and national school board associations, or education-related events planned by nonprofits or local, state, or national organizations;
    • Respond to reporters—such as requests from newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations;
    • Make lots of informed decisions —by making sure you fully understand and think through each issue you vote on;
    • Run a vigorous campaign —including participating in forums and walking precincts; and
    • Play by the rules —by trying not to become a terrible board member (and thereby providing me with more material for chapters in the next edition of this book).

    In short, when you join a school board, the community considers you a trustee —someone entrusted with ensuring the best possible education for every child in the district. This job takes your time, your energy, your thinking, and your emotional commitment.

    In spite of all these obligations—or perhaps partly because of them—being a school board member can be a hugely positive experience. Here are my personal reasons for wanting to be a school board member:

    • Service —Being a school board member allows me to serve my community in a way that has important and concrete consequences I can be proud of.
    • Mission —Being a school board member enriches my day job, which in my case as a college professor involves doing research on how to design effective instruction.
    • Interest —Being a school board member satisfies my interest in education.
    • Personal development —Being a school board member helps me develop team skills based on mutual respect with others and gain expertise in running effective meetings; it also greatly increases my knowledge of how schools work, challenges me to think through important issues, and links me with what is going on in my community and state.
    • Structured social environment —Being a school board member involves participating in meetings and an organizational structure in which my role is clearly defined, and I can apply this experience to other situations in my life.
    • Personal relations —Being a school board member allows me to interact with fine and talented people who care about helping children reach their full potential.

    Once you join a school board, you will quickly be able to generate your own list. Being a school board member rapidly becomes a part of your identity, and working for your district becomes a part of your life.

    The main goal of a school board is to make decisions in the best interests of all the children in the district. In joining a school board, you become part of a team whose shared responsibility is to make sure every child reaches his or her full potential. In working toward this crucial goal, you deserve the deep respect of your community.


    I am grateful to live in a place where public schools are intended to be run by local school boards and where I can have the opportunity to run for office as a school board member.

    I am grateful to the voters of my community who have elected me, and I appreciate the many ways in which members of my community show their strong support for our schools.

    I am grateful for the opportunity to work together with wonderful fellow board members in an atmosphere of mutual respect and common focus on what is best for the children of the district. It has been a privilege to work with each and every one of them, as I admire their dedication, teamwork, wisdom, and insights.

    I am grateful for the amazing superintendents I have worked with over the years, as well as the other talented administrators, teachers, and staff of the Goleta Union School District. In my somewhat biased opinion, they have created a school district that we all can admire.

    I am especially grateful to the kids of our district and the parents who nurture them. Whenever I feel a tinge of concern about the work and agony of school board business, all I have to do is visit a classroom and see in the children's faces the reasons for why it is all worth it. They give me reason for optimism for the future.

    Of course, I am grateful to my own children—Ken, Dave, and Sarah—who are all products of public education from kindergarten through graduate school and who are all proud graduates of Goleta schools. I initially ran for the school board when I became concerned about the goings-on in my son's school, so indeed I owe my school board career to my kids. They also encouraged me to write this book.

    Finally, I am grateful to my wife, Beverly, who has always encouraged me in my school board activities. She has endured the many evenings when I was away at a school board meeting or a school event, she has given me space when I needed to read up on school board business, she has understood when my thoughts were preoccupied with the latest school board issue, and she has been a reliable sounding board for my debates on pending issues.

    Concerning this book, I wish to thank Debra Stollenwerk for her extraordinary guidance and support in her role as editor, the staff of Corwin for their expertise in producing this publication, and the reviewers who offered positive encouragement and useful suggestions.

    Richard E.Mayer, Santa Barbara, California
    Publisher's Acknowledgments

    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the following individuals for taking the time to provide their editorial insight and guidance:

    • Douglas Gordon Hesbol, Superintendent Laraway CCSD 70C Joliet, IL
    • Glen Ishiwata, Superintendent Moreland School District San Jose, CA
    • Fred C. Maharry, Superintendent Alta Community Schools Alta, IA
    • Robert J. Marzano, CEO Marzano Research Laboratory Englewood, CO
    • Lyle A. Rigdon, Adjunct Professor University of Illinois—Springfield Retired Superintendent Pawnee, IL
    • Max Skidmore, Professor University of Georgia Department of Lifelong Learning, Administration, and Policy
    • Athens, GA Rene Townsend, Managing Partner Leadership Associates Former California superintendent Encinitas, CA
    • Bonnie Tryon, Principal for Instruction Planning and Support (retired) Cobleskill-Richmondville Central School Cobleskill, NY
    • Cynthia Wilson, Associate Professor of Teacher Education Department Chair University of Illinois Springfield Springfield, IL

    About Me

    I have had the privilege of being a school board member in Goleta, California, since 1981. The Goleta Union School District is a K–6 district with approximately 3,500 students and an annual budget of approximately $35 million. I have worked with four superintendents, each of whom stayed on the job in my district until retirement, which I consider a good sign. I have worked with dozens of fellow school board members on my district's five-person board, each of whom I remember fondly and with respect. My colleagues tell me I may be the longest-serving school board member in the county, but all I know is that I received my 25-year pin back in 2006, and I'm still plugging along—looking forward to running for my eighth term.

    In my day job, I am Professor of Psychology and Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I have served since 1975. I teach courses in educational psychology, cognitive psychology, and multimedia learning. My research focuses on instructional methods for helping people learn science and mathematics and on how to design effective online instruction. Along the way, my colleagues and I have produced 400 publications, including 25 books, such as Learning and Instruction, Multimedia Learning, e-Learning and the Science of Instruction, Handbook of Research on Learning and Instruction, and my most recent book, Applying the Science of Learning. I have served as vice president of the American Educational Research Association for Division C (Learning and Instruction) and president of Division 15 (Educational Psychology) of the American Psychological Association. I serve on the editorial boards of 12 journals, mainly in the area of educational psychology, and have been a journal editor and co-editor. I have received more than 20 research grants to study how to help people learn, mainly from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Office of Naval Research. I have been honored with the E. L. Thorndike Award for lifetime achievement in educational psychology and the Contributions of Applications of Psychology to Education and Training Award from the American Psychological Association. Recently, I was recognized in Contemporary Educational Psychology as the world's number one most productive educational psychologist for more than a decade. As you can see, I love to do research on how to help people learn.

  • Epilogue

    I want to thank you for allowing yourself to see what it might feel like to be a terrible school board member. It is not pleasant to play the role of a terrible school board member, but I asked you to try in hopes that it would prevent you from doing so in your real world.

    In reading over my 28 habits of terrible school board members, I fear you may think I have been displaying a 29th one: Preach to your fellow board members. My intention in writing this book was not to preach to you, and if you took it that way, I sincerely apologize. Instead, my goal was to ask you to consider deeply the implications of the way you operate as a board member—what I call your board member habits.

    The road to self-improvement as a board member (or what Benjamin Franklin more broadly called “moral perfection”) is a never-ending process. At least, that has been my experience as a board member over the last 28 years. Trust me, as the source of some of the scenarios in this book, I have the real-world bruises to prove that there is always room for improving your school board habits.

    I assume that your intentions are good. I have never met a school board member who had bad intentions. However, a recurring theme of this little book is that your good intentions can lead to terrible outcomes. If this book helps you become a better school board member, then I will consider it a success.

    This book is also for school administrators. My hope is that getting a glimpse into the minds of school board members can help you become more effective as a school administrator. Again, if you feel I have been presumptuous in offering advice to a professional like you, I sincerely apologize. My goal was not to share some chuckles with you about the wacky things school board members are capable of doing; rather, my goal was to help you consider ways you can help your school board members to avoid doing terrible things. A recurring theme of this book for school administrators is that an unwritten part of a superintendent's job is to minimize the chances that board members will exhibit terrible judgment. If this book helps you to become more effective in your interactions with board members, then I will consider it a smashing success.

    In looking over the 28 scenarios in this in book, it is clear that this book is all about people. In all, 35 characters are named, including 6 board members (including one from a neighboring board), 11 administrators (including the superintendent), 8 district employees (including the president of the teachers’ union), 7 community members, 2 students, and a reporter. It is interesting to note that the character whose name appears most often is Debbie Dineson, the superintendent. This is just another indication of the central role played by the superintendent in any story about effective school boards. Even though I started out writing a book about effective school board members, it soon became clear that school administrators are central characters in the story. In addressing my goal of writing a book about effective school boards, I discovered that I had to focus on both how to be an effective school board member and how to be an effective school administrator—as the roles of board members and the superintendent are so intertwined.

    As you can see, this book is really about how you treat other people. The key to avoiding becoming a terrible school board member is empathy. Not to become a terrible school board member requires thinking about how the person on the receiving end of your comment or action will feel—a district employee you humiliate at a board meeting, a member of the public you argue with during public comment, a fellow board member you conspire against to win a vote, a superintendent you critique in the press, a disgruntled parent you ignore, or a principal from whom you ask a special favor that violates district policy. Taking a moment to put yourself in their shoes before you act can prevent you from crossing that unforgiving line into the realm of terrible boardsmanship.

    In short, the overriding theme of this little book is that your work as a school board member or superintendent is based on human relations: working as a team, with clear roles, toward a common goal. Let's close by looking at each of those job descriptors:

    • Working as a team. When you join a school board, you become a member of a decision-making team that consists of board members and the superintendent. You soon find that your team also includes other district administrators, teachers, staff, students, parents, and the community. At times, your vista broadens even further to include elected officials, local leaders, and folks in other districts. If your conception of leadership is to tell other people what to do, then you will need to change that view when it comes to how to lead within the context of a school district—where decision making is a shared responsibility.

      The superintendent is an invaluable member of the team who can provide needed information, give sage advice, offer perspective, help gauge public and district sentiment, and, with any luck, help prevent board members from exhibiting terrible judgment. When it finally comes time for the board to make a decision, however, the superintendent must step back and let the board do its job.

      Let's be clear: When it comes to the formalities of making a decision, it all depends on how a majority of the board votes. The legal decision-making unit is the board—not you as an individual. As a board member, you are not the district, and you do not speak for the district; rather, you are a member of a board that has the shared responsibility of making decisions in the best interests of the children of the district. Many of the terrible scenarios in this book stem from a board member's misunderstanding of what it means to be part of a decision-making team and how shared decision making works within a board.

    • With clear roles. A board member is the community's trustee—someone the community has entrusted with making the best possible decisions for the education of the community's children. Your job as a school board member is to help set the agenda of issues to be decided and to prepare yourself for decision making by ensuring that you understand all relevant information, which includes getting input from the community, parents, students, district employees, and, of course, your fellow board members and district administrators. You need to think through each issue, ask questions, have conversations, build consensus with others, and think some more. You must be willing to put in the time and effort to educate yourself on each decision-making issue, to listen to input from all sides, and to engage in honest discussion with your fellow board members and the administrative team. In short, a board member represents the interests of everyone in the community to make good decisions.

      The superintendent is the district's leader —the person the board has entrusted with running the school district. The superintendent's job is to make sure the district runs effectively and succeeds in its mission of providing the best possible education for all students. A major segment of the superintendent's job involves working with the board, including helping the board do its job well. To safeguard against terrible judgment by board members, the superintendent's job includes making sure board members have appropriate training, making sure board members have the information and public input they need, setting the right tone for effective decision making, providing guidance and sage advice, and when necessary, applying first aid in situations where a board member makes (or is about to make) a terrible move. The superintendent is the only employee the board has direct authority to hire, evaluate, and fire (although, with luck and careful hiring, that last step will not happen). Once in place, the superintendent deserves every board member's trust and support (and constructive evaluative feedback), unless the superintendent demonstrates convincingly that the board's trust and support are not warranted. If this happens, the board's responsibility is to offer corrective feedback and, if necessary, to find a new person to entrust with running the district. Many of the terrible scenarios in this book can be traced back to a board member's misunderstanding of the roles of board members and superintendents.

    • Toward a common goal. When you think of running a school district, you may think of the hours you spend poring over columns of budget numbers, charts full of test scores, policy binders, and legal contracts. You may think of your file cabinets bulging with reports and agenda books. You may think of the countless meetings and events you attend. Yet, all of that is not really an end in itself but rather a means to an end: helping the kids of your district get the best possible education. Your reason for being on the board is to help kids. When things in the district seem overburdening or gloomy, I find the appropriate remedy is a visit to classrooms to see the faces of children eager to learn. We may disagree on how to accomplish the goal, but there should never be any doubt that everyone on the team has the same primary goal: to help every child reach his or her full potential. Many of the terrible scenarios in this book occur when board members lose sight of this common goal.

    For board members and superintendents, I wish you years of success in working as team, with clear roles, toward a common goal. There is no more important goal for our society than helping children reach their full potential. Those who work toward that goal deserve our society's deepest respect.

    CORWIN: A SAGE Company

    The Corwin logo—a raven striding across an open book—represents the union of courage and learning. Corwin is committed to improving education for all learners by publishing books and other professional development resources for those serving the field of PreK-12 education. By providing practical, hands-on materials, Corwin continues to carry out the promise of its motto: “Helping Educators Do Their Work Better.”

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