Voices from the Idaho EdNews Community

School board members stand as unsung architects

In the silent corridors of community governance, school board members stand as unsung architects, shaping the dreams and destinies of public education. Their dedication echoes through the unseen pages of our nation’s progress. They craft the vision and objectives for public schools in their area, and establish performance standards for schools and superintendents. Elected by local constituents, these members represent the community’s values and aspirations for schools. As community leaders, they maintain open communication to keep everyone informed about challenges, ideas, and progress. With the monumental task of educating nearly 50 million children who make up the students in public schools, board members go beyond policymaking and administration, serving as advocates for students and parents, entrusted with shaping a brighter future.

These dynamics are especially powerful in Idaho where a significant percentage of students learn in small communities. Education is key for the health of rural America. School consolidation, school closures, and a declining economic base for some of these areas have created hardships for families and schools. Rural schools also have serious challenges in staffing a full range of qualified teachers and providing the resources to support their efforts. Further difficulties arise in the fact that research studies about rural education and its particular context, nuances, and complications have always been sparse. In addition, educators are often constrained by certain reform models as well as approaches fueled by high-stakes, one-size-fits-all assessments. Expectations are at an all-time high while funding remains at historic lows.

The pressure for all students to achieve underscores the value of analyzing the school-level factors associated with student success. We need to supplement the portfolio of evidence-based instructional practices for high-needs student populations. Rural school districts are the lifeblood of their communities, serving myriad functions beyond education. They are essential hubs for various community activities, offering access to vital services such as nutrition and mental health counseling. Rural school facilities serve multifaceted roles, doubling as polling stations, disaster evacuation centers, and venues for events such as funerals, family reunions, and weddings. Given that many rural districts serve as the primary employers in their regions, they additionally face distinct economic considerations not encountered in more densely populated regions.

The unique challenges of rural areas, including smaller staff sizes and overlapping roles among decision-makers, can complicate governance and leadership. In rural districts, superintendents and school board trustees often wear multiple hats, from overseeing operations to teaching classes. While this closeness fosters strong community connections, it can blur lines of responsibility and lead to micromanagement or individual agendas. To ensure success, these leaders must strike a balance between their various roles and focus on overarching governance principles. Research involving a rural Idaho district indicates how effective governance practices can drive significant improvements. By working collaboratively and adopting a structured approach, scholars observed that a district could achieve a more robust budget, reduced staff turnover, and increased student achievement. Key to their success was a commitment to “getting on the balcony”—gaining perspective and distance from day-to-day operations in order to focus on long-term goals.

At a recent gathering of the Idaho School Boards Association, I had the opportunity to hear Elizabeth Wargo from the University of Idaho present on this topic. In her article, “Rural School District Leadership and Governance: Eating Your Veggies to Stay on the Balcony,” Wargo and her colleagues say, “getting in the weeds’’ or micromanagement is “an egregious error in governance that has been associated with low district performance. Micromanagement on behalf of trustees distracts the team from the work necessary to support district-wide success for all students long term, especially when trustees disagree and cannot come to a consensus and lead as a team.”

In small rural communities, handling differences of opinion and fostering relationships with individuals who hold varying perspectives is a highly visible task. School board and superintendent partnerships that adhere to defined governance principles greatly contribute to student achievement. Trustees and superintendents committed to advancing student success share a unified vision. They employ data-driven approaches to establish objectives and track advancements for all students. Transparency and communication are essential. The Idaho district in the study implemented monthly updates on progress towards goals, fostering community trust, and reducing rumors. Bite-sized training sessions during board meetings ensured that trustees stayed informed about governance best practices and policy changes.

Despite the challenges, the success of that Idaho district demonstrates that focused collective action, trust, and ongoing learning can drive positive change in rural school governance. By staying committed to the “right work” and maintaining clear boundaries, governance teams can support districts and enable communities to thrive. Pressures are rising on rural schools and their leaders. Everywhere, there are signs that they would benefit from greater collaboration, citizen participation, and regional analysis. More than ever, part time elected officials are burdened with heavy administrative and financial responsibilities and minimal or nonexistent professional support. Rural school districts need to balance community engagement and strategic planning. By staying focused on the community’s long-term goals and fostering open communication, leaders can overcome obstacles and drive meaningful improvements.

Michael Strickland

Michael Strickland

Michael Strickland teaches at Boise State University and studies at Idaho State University.

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