Monday, April 7, 2014

Dysfunctional School Boards?

What does it mean, to be dysfunctional? 

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines dysfunction:


 noun \(ˌ)dis-ˈfəŋ(k)-shən\
: the condition of having poor and unhealthy behaviors and attitudes within a group of people
medical : the state of being unable to function in a normal way

Full Definition of DYSFUNCTION

:  impaired or abnormal functioning <gastrointestinaldysfunction>
:  abnormal or unhealthy interpersonal behavior or interaction within a group <family dysfunction>
— dys·func·tion·al  adjective
So, when one hears that a Board of Education is "dysfunctional" one must query for deeper context and understanding. 

Recently, in upstate New York, the board of education of a prominent school district accepted the resignation of it's superintendent of schools by a vote of 4 to 3. This act was a mid-year collision of leadership, which, of course, is a serious act that can offer chaotic circumstances.The media and the critics have offered their interpretation of this as a "dysfunctional board of education". I sometimes wonder what Shakespeare would have said about a situation of this kind. Maybe, "dysfunction is in the eye of the beholder?"

Having served as a school superintendent of another prominent school district in New York State, our school board voted 5-2 on closing one of our elementary schools. They were also called dysfunctional. But, I would contend that our board, and the board mentioned above did what they were supposed to do, and that is provide direction, policy leadership and act on program decisions to the best of their ability. A unanimous board decision is a rare act when it comes to providing educational stability and meeting the needs of so many disparate groups of people that make up a school community.

But, still, there are situations where dysfunction occurs, and school leaders need to be proactive in helping and providing context for the members. Activities such as a solid, school board orientation program outlining the responsibilities of school board members in their functions, goes a long way in establishing a constructive working relationship with other members. Establishing the district direction as to vision, mission, objectives, and strategic planning should be the initiative of the school superintendent in conjunction with the members of the Board and the community in establishing the work of moving schools forward.  And, with a continual planning and review process this becomes an important feature in maintaining positive and constructive behaviors and actions for the district.

The Oregon School Boards Association offers: "there is a relationship between misunderstanding one's role and the tendency to find yourself in over your head." And this happens to newly elected school board members who have an agenda that may be contrary to other board members. Consider the "Tea Party" legislators that entered Congress in recent years with an agenda to shake up the government. Right or wrong, it was their commitment to contribute to the legislative process from their beliefs and their constituents. 

Dysfunction is a disease that can destroy the focus of an organization. But, acting from one's beliefs is a commitment to the integrity and purpose of why people run for a school board seat in the first place. It then becomes the commitment of the school leadership to provide guidance and orientation to all board members as to their role and responsibility. 

Here are more recommendations from the Oregon School Boars Association:

  • Board members are policy makers for the district, not micromanagers.
  • Vision, mission and priorities are the responsibilities of the board of education and the superintendent
  • Board members must be prepared for each and every meeting. When everyone is prepared, the entire board acts functionally
  • How the Board of Education conducts their business is as important as the business they conduct.
  • Presentation, honesty and discussion often leads to consensus, or an understanding of positions when opposition is discovered.
  • Asking questions in ok.
  • School Board Members are responsible to all the people, but more importantly to all the students.
  • Every issue is special.
  • Board members are simply citizens until a quorum is called and the meeting is called to order

Oregon School Boards Association, "Is your school board dysfunctional?." Last modified July 28, 2009. Accessed April 7, 2014.

"Dysfunction." Accessed April 7, 2014.

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