What does a school board do?

Public schools in the United States are overseen by school boards.  Most everyone knows this, but very few folks know what school boards do or how they conduct their business.  School boards are mainly responsible for creating school policy, approving the district budget, and hiring and evaluating the district superintendent.  While this list may seem short, it covers a great deal of responsibility.

School districts in the twenty-first century are highly regulated organizations.  Districts are regulated by state and federal laws as well as by school codes.  In fact, upon becoming board members, what most newly elected board trustees discover is just how tightly regulated districts are.

In order to create structure to how a district will deal with the large number of laws and regulations they are subject to, school boards oversee the policies of the district.  Printed out, school policy manuals tend to be hefty, thick publications many hundreds, if not thousands of pages long.  Fortunately, many district now have their policies online.

School boards then are responsible for passing the policies the district runs by.  In order to keep up with ever changing laws many districts utilize the services of outside teams of lawyers who write summaries of new laws and regulations and make recommendations for new policies or updates to existing ones.  In order to evaluate the recommendations made to them boards will either direct the superintendent to evaluate recommended changes and bring them to the board for adoption, or will appoint a board committee to evaluate recommendations and then present suggested updates to the full board.

School boards are also responsible for the overall budget for the district.  Public school districts receive funding from federal, state, and local resources.  Each of these entities may have different rules for how received dollars are spent.  Like the laws that districts are subject to from government, funding is highly regulated as well.  Budgets and budget creation can be complicated (and political) things.  Most often school boards rely on the superintendent and district business manager to keep the board advised as to the district’s financial position and health.  School boards review district revenues and expenditures at their school board meetings and serve to oversee spending in order to assure that public tax dollars are being spent correctly.

School boards also pass an annual budget that plans for how estimated revenue for a school fiscal year will be spent.  In times when money is tight or shrinking this can be an incredibly challenging and stressful responsibility for school board members.  School districts in Michigan have very little control over the amount of funding they receive from the state.  In many other states annual funding is determined locally or via a combination of state allocations and locally voted millages.

The only employee Michigan districts are required to hire and who reports directly to them is the school superintendent.  The superintendent is responsible for what is known as the “day to day” operations of the school district.  The school board evaluates the superintendent on how well s/he is carrying out the vision and goals of the district.

Within the responsibilities above may fall other roles for the board.  School boards are responsible for approving contracts and may choose to be directly involved in contract negotiations with employee groups.  Boards are also involved in the case when an employee is subject to severe discipline or discharge.  They may also become involved in student discipline of a nature that is either dangerous, illegal, or which is subject to specific policy action.

In order to handle the many functions of a school district and the actions that boards must make about them, school boards often work by committee in order make recommendations to the full board.  A committee will be composed of a small number of board members.  Committee members will meet to hear about a specific topic and to then make a larger recommendation to the school board at a regular or special board meeting.  Some typical committees boards may have are: athletic, technology, curriculum, building and grounds, personnel, and finance.  When boards are faced with considering complicated decisions they often rely on the reports of committees to help with decision making.

Being a school board member is not easy.  School board members have to educate themselves in many areas and then make important, and sometimes very difficult decisions.  Board members are vital to the function of school districts and school districts need committed, wise community members to serve.  Being a board member can be rewarding and is certainly educational!  If you are considering running for your local board, meeting with the superintendent or with a board member will help you to decide if it is right for you.

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