School boards are definitely unique. They are almost exclusively volunteer, while being asked to lend their time, talent and often their treasure. The demands of the regular board activities, which may include subcommittees, can be time-consuming. As a result, it can be challenging to get board members to take more of their personal time to engage in non-board school activities.
Furthermore, add in the various life stages of board members – retired with adult children, members with preschool-age children or members with children currently enrolled – it can be a challenge to get board members to regularly attend meetings, let alone get them to engage in school events beyond their board duties.
The Rice Memorial High School board, a private Catholic school in South Burlington Vermont, is composed of individuals in all of these life scenarios, but most importantly it has incredibly dedicated members. This is not by accident; the board has worked hard to ask and choose those people who will take the time and have the energy necessary to be effective members and leaders in the Rice community, which means participating or being a presence at school events.
Although it is not a requirement to participate in non-board activities to be a board member, the school and administration take an active role in inviting school board members to events. Members are offered tickets to the annual Rice Stunt Nite performance, which is a big attraction in town over the holidays.
Board members are regularly invited to sporting events, catholic masses and fine arts performances to name a few. And there is a difference between being regularly invited versus being welcome to attend. It is more personal and consistent to be invited – both of which are important when you are trying to get people engaged when they otherwise might not be.
However, the most important and easiest way to get school board members engaged in school activities is when the members have fully “bought in” to the school, its community and what it is trying to achieve. When this occurs, participation in non-board-related school activities becomes an easier sell and is often a byproduct. That may seem like an obvious statement, so the critical question is, “How do you get your board to buy in?” The answer may seem in contrast to the time constraints noted previously, but it makes all the difference.
To get the board to “buy in,” it is important to make sure your board is engaged in school goal setting, strategy and, most importantly, execution of the strategy. You don’t just update the board once a month, let them ask questions, make recommendations and adjourn. You must get them involved with subcommittees, serving as liaisons to various departments in your school. School board members need to get to know your administration, your enrollment personnel, your guidance team, your athletic department, etc.
Within the larger strategy of the school there are tasks that need to be accomplished. A properly chosen board has professional experience in many areas that should be a benefit to the various school departments. Board personnel can prove to be great sounding boards and advisors for department heads through the subcommittee process. At Rice, each board member serves on a subcommittee and that subcommittee has at least one Rice employee that also is a member. Each subcommittee establishes goals or tasks that it is responsible for accomplishing and each month the subcommittee chair who is also a board member, reports the progress of their committee to the entire board.
This process has created “buy in” from the board members and in doing so the members have become more engaged in various aspects of the school. When board members, administration and department heads form a professional relationship, you have an engaged board and an engaged board member doesn’t forget about the school when the board is not in session.
Jerry Tarrant is the businessman who helped to start the online grocery store, MyWebGrocer. He currently serves as the chair of the Rice Memorial High School Board. He resides in Colchester, Vermont, with his wife and two young daughters.