What Makes a Good School Board Member?

School board members can be some of the biggest change makers for high school. But what does it take to be a good school board member?

By Anna Sudderth

School board members serve their communities by working to improve student achievement in their area public schools. State and federal laws give school boards the power to develop policies governing school budgets and curricula. Boards are also in charge of school facilities. The board employs the superintendent and adopts collective bargaining agreements.

What Does a School Board Member Need To Be Effective?

Board members must work with one another to agree on policies and make decisions. They also maintain relationships with the community as well as with teachers’ unions. They may cooperate with other local officials and governing bodies to achieve objectives. This means a good school board member needs to possess certain characteristics.

  • Establishes a Clear Vision: Before getting down to the practicalities, a school board member must have a clear vision of their goals for the district. Developing such a vision requires a lot of study and thought. The board member must understand the factors that affect student performance in a particular district and be able to develop effective, realistic goals for improvement.
  • Works Well on a Team: A school board consists of several members, each of whom brings a unique perspective to the table. It is not enough to have a clear vision of how to move forward. Each member must also be willing to hear other points of view and build consensus. The process of developing policies should be a team effort, reflecting the input of every member.
  • Focuses on Students: Many issues affect a board’s goals and topics of discussion. However, it is important not to lose sight of the main priority: the students. What is best for students can vary depending on circumstances; there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. An effective school board member looks at school practices and curriculum adjustments that will benefit the students.
  • Sets and Follows a Budget: In addition to setting policy, the school board’s other major area of responsibility is the budget. The board allocates funds in a way that best meets students’ needs and drives improvement. In addition to determining spending, the board must also track the performance of invested funds. The board must have a process for identifying and monitoring performance indicators that will allow it to see whether its investments are delivering the right results. 
  • Uses Data to Drive Decisions: A good school board member will also be proficient in gathering and analyzing relevant data. It is important to know what types of data will show the success or otherwise of a particular policy and to be able to figure out reliable ways to obtain it. Test scores may provide one resource, but they do not tell the whole story. Board members need to think out of the box when deciding the types of data they will rely on in making decisions and explaining them to the community.
  • Engages with the Community: School board members need to engage with the wider local community. Partnering with the community provides opportunities for students to grow in a real-world context. Every community also faces a unique set of challenges in terms of education. When setting policies and goals, school boards should understand the community’s values, wishes, and challenges
  • Advocates for the Community: Board members have the opportunity to advocate for their districts at the municipal, state, and national levels. They should actively represent the interests of their own district. They should also be informed of proposed policies and laws that could affect public education in general. 
  • Accountable: Accountability is key to seeing policies through. School board members must be able to back up their decisions and actions with facts and data. The board’s actions must be transparent and accountable to the public.
  • Collaborative: To be effective, the school board must work with the community, school staff, and stakeholders. Rather than imposing rules from above, a good board values the input of community members. It understands that involving the community and stakeholders will help it make decisions that are in tune with local values and needs.
  • Overcomes Setbacks: School districts sometimes suffer from budget cuts. While a reduced budget can force boards to make difficult choices, effective board members find ways to work with it, adjust, and implement top-priority initiatives.
  • Fosters Team Development: One key element of school district policy should be providing professional development and training. Improving skills, motivation, and communication is vital to team-building and performance.
  • Prioritizes Continual Improvement: Some districts face serious problems that need effective solutions as soon as possible. Other districts generally function well but could see improvement in certain areas. Whatever the case, it is important that a school board prioritize continual improvement. 
  • Creates Individualized Solutions: Every district is unique. Solutions and policies that might improve conditions in one district can prove counterproductive in another. School board members should recognize that standardized solutions sometimes fall short. A good school board member examines the data and develops policy based on the district’s specific situation.
  • Effective at Self-Assessment: Just as a school district should continuously improve, so should its board. Effective school boards periodically assess their own practices and track record. This self-assessment helps identify areas where the board could work better. 
  • Committed to Educational Equity: Educational equity is the idea that students need the same opportunities, not the same treatment. School boards should use data to identify how students’ disadvantages can negatively affect their education and allocate resources to optimally mitigate this effect. Curriculum and teacher training plans should incorporate differentiated instruction and culturally responsive education. A data-driven equity approach is key to implementing changes to improve student outcomes.

What Are Some Characteristics of an Ineffective School Board Member?

  • Fails to Prioritize Student Needs: Ineffective school board members fail to prioritize student interests and school improvement. They may instead use their school board position to promote a personal agenda. Here is an example of a school that prioritizes student voice
  • Fails to Represent the Interests of the District: Some school board members consider the interests of a specific neighborhood rather than those of the entire district. Such members lack the right perspective to accomplish their duties effectively.
  • Fails to Accomplish Their Obligations: Finally, some board members neglect their duties. Most board positions are on a volunteer basis. Before taking on such a responsibility, potential school board members must be sure their other work or personal obligations will not interfere with effective performance.

Questions to Ask School Board Candidates

Once you understand what makes a good school board member, the next step is getting to know your local candidates and deciding how you’ll vote. One of the best ways to do this is attending a candidate forum, where community members have the opportunity to hear from school board candidates and ask them questions. 

Before attending a forum, ask yourself: what qualities are most important to me in a school board member? What educational issues matter most to me and my community? What current issues are the most pressing? Then, prepare some questions that touch on those concerns. This list of questions to ask school board candidates can get you started:

  • What are your goals for the district?
  • What experiences do you have working to improve our community?
  • How do you plan to address COVID-related learning loss?
  • What policies and approaches can schools take to prioritize student mental health?
  • How can our district build school/community partnerships to prepare students with college and career ready skills?
  • What kinds of data do you think the school board should use to inform decisions?
  • How should our district prioritize spending American Rescue Plan (ARP ESSER) funds? How will you incorporate community input into those decisions?
  • How do you plan to expand equity in our school district during your time on the board?
  • How will you gather community feedback and hold yourself accountable to the students and families of this district?
  • How do you think the school board should address [an issue or topic that is your priority]?
  • What do you see as the most pressing issues facing students in our community?
  • How can our district do more to support the needs of [a particular student group]?
  • What do you see as the greatest strengths of our community? 

Maybe after considering these questions and the qualities of a school board member, you’re feeling inspired to run yourself! If you want to get involved in your district’s board and have what it takes, XQ can give you the information you need to take action. Learn how you can run for school board, find local elections, and get news about school boards around the country