Effective School Boards Produce Strong Schools
by Pam Nutt
Media Specialist • Griffin-Spalding County School System
MultiMedia Schools • October 2000
Making a difference in children’s lives is the primary goal of any school board member. Seeing advancement in student achievement, parent participation in schools, and positive community involvement are just a few of the ways board members can measure their school system’s success. But these achievements don’t come easy. The composition of members on a school board can determine the failure or success of a system. When I became the newest and youngest board member of the Henry County Board of Education located in McDonough, Georgia, I just knew that I could change the world of education, but I soon realized that change is not a one-person job; it is a joint effort between all board members, which requires board members to be able to work together on many different issues. I soon realized that I had to be a team player.

My experiences have led to the following lessons, which I share with you in the spirit of encouraging you to either take the leap yourself, or at least to help you understand from the perspective of the board members, who will rely upon your information as they form the decisions that determine how effective the schools you work in will be. Either way, as library/media specialists, we are in a unique position to provide crucial insights that can vastly improve the quality of decision-making.

How Did a Media Specialist End Up on a School Board, Anyhow?
I returned to college at the age of 30 to obtain a degree in education. I finished a 4-year program in 3 years and graduated Cum Laud from Mercer University. I returned to Henry County for a teaching job, but alas, I had campaigned for a friend to become superintendent, who lost the election. The person who won the election had no use for first-year teachers (of which I was one) and did not hire me. I had to go to a neighboring county; after the first interview I was hired on the spot. After a year of teaching I decided to run for the school board in Henry County (my home) and won by 68 percent! After being elected to the school board, I decided to pursue a degree in Instructional Technology/Media. Boards are always telling their teachers to better themselves and advance their degree. If I, a board member, was willing to ask the teachers to do this, then it stood to reason that I should be. I finished a media degree in ’98 and now am working on a Specialist in Media degree. Does the term professional student comes to mind?

Making a Difference
I have been able to show how important it is to go to the people who know their job. Gordon Baker, a media specialist at Union Grove High School, called and said that his start-up fund was not enough to comply with State Standards. I immediately brought this to the attention of the board by backing up my concern with March 2000 SLJ on cost of materials. Most of the boards do not have educators, and with the heavy workload, I understand why. I also believe that having a teacher/media specialist on the board allows the employees freedom to speak out on issues otherwise not known. I am very “people-friendly” and the teachers and specialists feel very comfortable talking with me. PR goes a long way!

People think the school board should know everything, but in fact we are usually the last to know. It is only when people come to us with issues, but we then become enlightened.

From a teacher’s point of view, boards don’t understand how hard it is to teach skills when you have one or two students that want to “entertain” the class. Discipline is a strong point with me, and when we have hearing appeals, I tend to throw the book at the students involved.

Knowing what you want when going before the school board
Most media centers are underfunded in American public schools. Building a collection, adding new equipment, and increasing the choices for computer software all take money. Media centers are funded on the number of students attending the school, which reflects the media budget. Replacing books alone is an expensive venture, not to mention beginning a new media center. The principal is given school funds to be used at his/her discretion. These funds usually are earmarked for special events (such as speakers and field trips), extra academic materials, and daily functions. The media center is usually not on that list.

Where can the extra money be found?
Media specialists are able to impose fines for lost or damaged books; money can also come from book fairs, Parent/Teacher Associations at school, and grant writing. There is one more source: the school board. School boards have the ability to award a media center with additional funds if the specialist can prove the need. Traditionally, media specialists have not persued this avenue, but as times get tighter, it is up to the specialists to be prepared with their facts and figures for the request. Before going before the local school board, the specialist needs to outline the request with the media committee. The committee can make recommendations as to the importance of the request and what items may need to be included. After the committee has approved the request, the proposal will need to go to the principal. Sit down with the principal and explain how your request will improve the media center. It is also a good idea to show how state standards and curriculum integration can be implemented for student achievement. Never do anything without the administration’s knowledge! After receiving administration approval, the next step is to take your request to the school board.

Getting Yourself Heard
Most people have never attended a school board meeting and have no idea about the scheduling of events that takes place. Call your board office and ask to be placed on the agenda for a specific meeting. Know all the board members’ names in advance so you can build a personal relationship while presenting your needs.

When going before the school board, keep these ideas in mind:

1. The board is made up of human beings.
They are elected by the community to provide leadership for the school system. Most of the board members do not have backgrounds in education. Thus, board members may not know the day-to-day operations of your center. It is up to the media specialist to visually show them how the center works. Remember to explain how the increase will impact the center (increased circulation, more multimedia software), and if possible, produce a specific example. Keep in mind that most people are visual learners.

2. Be specific about your request.
Coming before the board with a request is no small event. Have the needs specified. For example, if I were going to design a multimedia center with scanners and digital cameras, I would price the items several times using several different brands and companies. Give the board members handouts on the pricing and show how they compare. Use an overhead or PowerPoint presentation to review with the audience how the prices compare. Don’t be afraid to ask for what is needed. I always ask for more. Then, if they cut my expenditures, it will not be critical to the program.

3. Explain how the materials will be used.
Describe how the digital camera will be used by the students for book reports, multimedia projects, and documenting science projects. Show them how the staff can take advantage of the new technology, and point out that it will be available for check out. If at all possible, bring a physical example or at least a picture of the materials. Tell the board that there are teachers in the building that know how to use the materials. Board members hate the idea of buying materials that never get used.

4. Never be confrontational.
Believe it or not, this is one idea that needs to be discussed. The board members will ask questions about the request. They are not prying into the operations of the media center, rather, many of the members do not know how the equipment is used and just want reassurance that you do. Be pleasant, smile, and answer the questions. If you do not know the answer, don’t be afraid to say so, but finish the sentence with, “I’ll find out and get back to you.”

5. Good personal relations go a long way. After your presentation, most boards will take several days to deliberate the request. Take time to send them a thank-you note for considering your request. Most board members only get notes of complaints, not compliments. Also, invite the members to the media center to see how it operates. Ask them to participate in local school staff development, and even provide them with a schedule of events. And by all means, don’t put them on the spot. No one likes to be blindsided.

School boards are responsible for the budget of the entire system. It is good planning to have your request to the board before budget approval, especially if your request is expensive. Large systems usually set priorities for equipment purchases and designate which school will receive the allotment. Be prepared with a budget proposal, timeline for implementation, and a schedule of staff development classes and how the materials can be integrated into the classroom. Remember to include the community into the proposal. Parents are just as excited about new technology and materials as the students, thus designing a partnership between school and community is good planning.

What happens if they say “No”?
Don’t feel rejected. The board will explain why they cannot fulfill the request. The main reason for the denial is lack of funds. Most systems have the ability to fund small projects, but if a request is over the $10,000-range, most likely the board does not have the funds to provide the materials at that time. Thank the board for considering the request and then return to school and revise the material. Submit the proposal early for the up-and-coming school year. If a board knows that the need and community support are there for the materials in advance, the rational of obtaining the material is much better. Keep in mind that if one school asks for new equipment or materials that are out of the ordinary, the board will be setting a precedent for approval of one school over another. No board member wants to see one school excel over another in their district. As a result, the board must be prepared to do for the other schools what it initiates with the one school. Board members must consider each request separately and how it will impact student and staff achievement. Just remember that the request has been made and publicized. It will be up to the media specialist to continue the quest for dollars and to not take “No” for an answer.

Communicating with the community
The hardest relationship to keep open is communication between the community and board members. What the community perceives as a board member’s job may actually be the responsibility of the superintendent. Currently Henry County is considering Year Around School for the future due to the increase in student population growth. To accomplish this feat, the board has worked very closely with the superintendent for input on how to implement this change. Specialists were contracted to study facilities and give any recommendations for space management. Once the recommendations are completed, the next step is to inform the public of the possibility of change. Community advisors must be consulted in order to make any changes. The advisors will include daycare providers, business owners, church clergy, and Parent Teacher Association leaders. By including everyone’s input, discussions may uncover issues or concerns that may or may not have been addressed by the board. Consistent communication provides more diverse thinking, which can help to prevent problems before they arise.

Working towards the future
What have I learned after 4 years on the school board? Consistent communication with the community and the other board members is the only way to have a positive and proactive school system. Try not to spend too much time on individual issues and instead look at the future of your system. Determine what changes will need to be implemented now and which are the needs of the future. Most board members will tell you that it takes at least 2 years to understand fully the roles and responsibilities of being on the board. That is why your role is so crucial: You’ll be there long after the current board enjoys the relief that comes with retirement! The relationships you build with board members are the key to building a communications pipeline and keeping information flowing.

Members should work closely with other systems and even closer with each other, attend district and state functions, and network with anyone who can advance their school system. Don’t be an alien; do be an ally. And last, don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” This reply is not an admission of weakness. Successful board members must search for the answer and report their findings. The public thinks you should have all the answers, when in fact the board is usually the last to know. Remind the public that you are just one person, and that you must rely on their communication to improve education. Would I run again? Yes, but hopefully with what I now know, I shouldn’t make the same mistakes again.

Pam Nutt is a media specialist with Griffin-Spalding County School System, a school board member on the Henry County Board of Education, a Media Specialist at Moore Elementary School and a graduate student at West Georgia College and State University. Communications to the author may be addressed to 286 Luella Rd. Locust Grove, Georgia 30248; e-mail: pnutt@mindspring.com.

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