by Lesley Hodge
What are the responsibilities of a local Board of Education? If you thought as publicly elected officials their duty is first and foremost to represent you, the public, I’m afraid you may be somewhat mistaken.
Lesley Hodge lives in Symmes Township off of Enyart Road
To understand the duties and responsibilities of a local Board of Education you must start with Ohio Revised Code Title 33 – Education. Under §3313 we find board members can be elected to unlimited 4-year terms (unlike State school board members who have term limits).
We read that they are to take an oath to uphold the Constitution of the U.S. and the Constitution of the State and to “perform faithfully the duties of their office”. What exactly are those duties? The law says they consist of only two things:
1) setting policy for a wide variety of issues; and
2) appointing, removing and evaluating a superintendent and a treasurer and fixing the compensation for said individuals.
Numerous subsections of §3313 define various policies the board should develop pertaining to such things as professional meetings, locker searches, procuring insurance, notifying of absences and determining and selecting all the following: textbooks, instructional materials, and curriculum. The board sets policy for credit card accounts, principles of democracy, and ethics, grade promotion and retention, organizing and operating summer school, and graduation requirements. These are just a sampling.
Ohio law has nothing to say about where the board’s loyalties lie.
The Ohio law is quite thorough about the diverse policies the local Board of Education must produce and how they should operate but has nothing to say about where the board’s loyalties lie. Does the board have any responsibility toward the public who elected them? Is there a conflict of interest? Who else might have input into interpreting board duties?
To go deeper we must jump to the Ohio School Board Association (OSBA). OSBA is not a legal entity. It is an unelected trade/membership organization with the mission of providing “comprehensive training, support, resources, and inspiration to school boards to maximize their effectiveness in carrying out their leadership roles”. It was founded in 1955 after four regional associations in Ohio banded together to coordinate activities. The OSBA offers a variety of fee-based services to local boards, including communication, strategic planning, tips for meetings, policy development, management, and financial advice. OSBA will even help you run for the school board! Local boards pay a membership fee to OSBA, a percentage of which is allocated for lobbying and political campaigning by the OSBA. The district pays these fees. For Loveland the OSBA fees in 2020 were $7,715.
You the taxpayer foot the bill.
When elected a new board member is sent to what one former Board member described as “School Board Camp”. This refers to Board Member 101, a 2-day workshop in Columbus or a satellite location that offers a “survival kit” for the first 90 days in office. You the taxpayer foot the bill. While explaining the law and the direct duties of a board member, the OSBA also interprets the law and expands it with duties they think the law implies. An Ohio Board member from a northern county said the OSBA actually teaches new members to be advocates for the school and to rubber-stamp what the school wants. In other words, OSBA teaches new board members that their loyalties are to be reserved for the district first.
OSBA teaches new board members that their loyalties are to be reserved for the district first.
But let’s check the OSBA website (ohioschoolboards.org) to see for ourselves. The OSBA identifies four major objectives for school board leadership suggested by the National School Boards Association. These are:
- Keep students as focus
- Adopt a shared vision based on community beliefs to guide local education
- Demonstrate a strong commitment to the shared vision by using them to guide decisions
- Employ a superintendent and management structure that enables people
- Establish processes to manage systems
- Develop long-term plans and revisit them annually
- Review and adopt policies and allocate resources to support teaching and learning
- Set high instructional standards
- Encourage an innovative learning environment
- Monitor progress through quality assessments and reports
- Evaluate superintendent and treasurer performance
- Evaluate progress toward long-term goals
- Report district progress to the community
- Seek resources to expand opportunities
- Advocate for families and children through strong partnerships
- Lead celebrations of student achievement
- Promote school board service as a meaningful way to contribute to society
Metaphorically the Ohio Revised Code is the skeleton of the board’s responsibilities, and an unelected trade organization puts flesh on those bones.
Within these four objectives, one can see the responsibilities as outlined by the Ohio Revised Code, but they are augmented by the trade organizations. Metaphorically the Ohio Revised Code is the skeleton of the board’s responsibilities, and an unelected trade organization puts flesh on those bones. The OSBA also publishes a code of ethics specifying that board members accept the responsibility to improve education in part by:
- Remembering that the first and greatest concern must be the educational welfare of all students attending the public schools;
- Obeying the laws of Ohio and the United States;
- Respecting the confidentiality of privileged information;
- Recognizing that an individual board member has no authority to speak or act for the board;
- Working with other members to establish effective board policies;
- Delegating authority for the administration of the schools to the superintendent and staff;
- Encourage ongoing communications among board members, the board, students, staff, and the community;
- Render all decisions based on the available facts and independent judgment rather than succumbing to the influence of individuals or special interest groups
On the Loveland City Schools website, it states that the “Board of Education’s primary responsibility is to establish purposes, programs, and procedures which produce educational achievement. The board must accomplish this while also being responsible for the wise management of resources available to the district. The board fulfills these responsibilities by functioning primarily as a legislative body to formulate and adopt policy, by selecting an executive officer to implement policy, and by evaluating the results; further, it must carry out its functions openly, while seeking the involvement and contributions of the public, students, and staff in its decision-making processes.”
The Loveland Board Policy Manual found at https://go.boarddocs.com/oh/love/Board.nsf/Public pretty much mirrors what is taught at OSBA regarding the Board’s responsibilities and loyalties. The code of ethics in the manual is copied almost verbatim from that on the OSBA website with the noted reversal that the laws of Ohio and the United States are to be obeyed first and the educational welfare of the students follows. The accompanying Code of Conduct reiterates that the Board must keep its primary focus on the best interests of the students and act as an advocate for the schools and for the children.
The Policy Manual defines the Board’s own powers and duties in a simple and direct fashion:
0122 – SCHOOL BOARD POWERS AND DUTIES
Under the laws of the State of Ohio, the Board acts as the governing body of the public schools. Within the extent of its legal powers, the Board has responsibilities for operating the District in accordance with the desires of local citizens who elect its members.
The Board’s major responsibilities are:
- to adopt policies for its governance and the governance of its employees and the students of the District;
- to select and employ a Superintendent;
- to select and employ a Treasurer;
- to determine and approve the annual budget and appropriations;
- to provide needed facilities;
- to provide for the funds necessary to finance the operation of the District;
- to consider and approve or reject the recommendations of the Superintendent in all matters of policy, appointment or dismissal of employees, salary schedules, courses of study, selection of textbooks and other matters pertaining to the operation of the District;
- to require reports of the Superintendent concerning the conditions, efficiency and needs of the District;
- to evaluate and to improve the educational effectiveness of the District; and
- to inform the public about the progress and needs of the District and to solicit and weigh public opinion as it affects the District.
These are self-explanatory, but what is interesting is the mention of local citizens in the opening paragraph. This leads us to ask the question again regarding whether there is any duty or responsibility to the electorate?
Although the law does not specifically define the responsibility of the board towards the public, one can imply that it exists. While the primary focus for OSBA is keeping students and allegiance to the district first it does have some things to say about the community, as does the Loveland Board Policy Manual.
The Loveland Board Policy Manual duly notes that “Within the extent of its legal powers, the Board has responsibilities for operating the District in accordance with the desires of local citizens who elect its members.”
In a segment on its website entitled “Ins and Outs of Board Membership” OSBA offers this advice about the board’s relationship with and responsibility to the outside community:
Act in the best interest of the district as a whole “You were elected to your position by a specific segment of your community…you can best serve your community by getting information from those who are impacted by a given decision. Your board should realize that it must focus on what is best for the greatest good of the district and community. Make informed decisions that have a positive impact on all students and the community as a whole…..
Ask good questions about consequences. Consequences of board actions impact students. Big picture decisions made by the board can have far reaching effects on the district. Your community and district expect your board to make decisions that are well thought out, reflect the greatest good principle, and are responsible.
The Loveland Board Policy Manual duly notes that “Within the extent of its legal powers, the Board has responsibilities for operating the District in accordance with the desires of local citizens who elect its members.” (0122) It also has a responsibility to inform the public about the progress and needs of the District and to solicit and weigh public opinion as it affects the District (0122(J)). The Board has a responsibility to establish clear goals for the District and ensure that the community is aware of these goals. (0123(P)) Furthermore, the Policy Manual says “Community participation in the schools is essential to promote and maintain the quality of education for all students.” (2111.01) Finally, under School-Community Relations Goals staff members have a responsibility to promote good school-community relations. They should view every contact with members of the community as an opportunity to build a good relationship through a two-way process of communications using media and other forms of communication to provide factual, objective and realistic data and promote involvement and support. (excerpted from 9120.01).
While some members of the public might agree that the Board fulfills its responsibility to the public or the community outside the school, there are others who would disagree.
While some members of the public might agree that the Board fulfills its responsibility to the public or the community outside the school, there are others who would disagree. Does the Board operate the District in accordance with the desires of local citizens who elect it? Is there good two-way communication between the District and the community? Are communications factual and objective? Are you confused about what the law, the OSBA, and the Policy Manual all say and what the Board of Education actually does?
The Board, however, is supposed to lead.
Becoming a Board Member is a daunting task and an overwhelming responsibility. Unfortunately, Board members probably don’t get paid enough to want to do the kind of due diligence necessary to understand the details of the district for which they are required to set good policy. Because the Board is an ongoing entity members can simply rely on policies that were adopted in the past and don’t often require revising. Newer board members rely on older Board members’ experience. In addition, Board members lean heavily on the information given to them by the Superintendent and the Treasurer. The Board, however, is supposed to lead. On the organizational chart shown in the Policy Manual (1100) the Board occupies the top spot. This explicitly indicates that the Superintendent and Treasurer are Board employees who are to act at the direction of the Board.
Leadership involves building bridges between the district and the outside community and not building a wall around the school.
The OSBA says the local Board is the face of the district. Leadership involves building bridges between the district and the outside community and not building a wall around the school. One of the reasons Board members are required to live in the community from which they are elected is that they will presumably have an understanding of the economics and characteristics of that community when they make decisions regarding the educational welfare of the students in that district.
Do you think the Board has acted for the greatest good of both the district and the community in fulfilling its legal responsibilities and the implied and expanded duties added by the OSBA? Are the decisions they are making responsible and well thought out? Does the Board, per its own directive, operate the District in accordance with the desires of local citizens who elect its members?