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DC School Board Information Project
Initial Brochure
September 2000

November 7, 2000

Roles, Responsibilities, Qualities, Questions and Issues for School Board Members in Washington DC

DC School Board Information Project


In the next few months, the District of Columbia will select a new school board. In the November 7, 2000 general election voters will elect five of the nine members, including the Board President; the Mayor, with the advice and consent of the Council, will select the other four members.

The D.C Board of Education matters. While neither the Board nor its members educate students, manage individual schools, or keep buildings safe, the Board as a whole is charged with critical responsibilities, from setting policies for the schools and the school system to hiring and overseeing the Superintendent.

The organizations and individuals of the DC School Board Information Project have come together to produce this document despite our different views on the creation of the new hybrid school board. We all agree that our children deserve the best possible school board: one that operates effectively to make sound decisions about their education.

Roles and responsibilities

The role of the school board is to determine the vision, goals and objectives of the school system and then set policy and, hire and evaluate a superintendent accordingly.

The D.C. Law

The responsibilities of the D.C. Board of Education are defined by the D.C. Home Rule Charter (as amended by the June 27, 2000 referendum), and elaborated on by the D.C. Code:

  • Establish Policies: adopt and publish at least biannually an Education Policy Agenda (Code); the Superintendent is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the public schools (Charter)
  • Hire, evaluate and remove the Superintendent (for cause) (Charter); negotiate a publicly available performance contract with the Superintendent (Code)
  • Establish personnel policies and guidelines; the Board does not make or approve personnel decisions or negotiate with union representatives (Charter)
  • Establish guidelines and goals for academic achievement (Code)
  • Approve the annual budget submission (Charter).

The Board as Policy-Maker

The Charter and DC Code definitions reflect a growing consensus across the nation, among experienced school board members as well as researchers who study school boards, that the job of a school board is to be a "policy board," not a "collective management committee." On behalf of the public the Board determines and states its expectations of the school system.

The board then selects superintendents whose views on goals and policy are compatible with the board's, and negotiates advance agreements with them on the criteria by which the board will evaluate them. Board members avoid involvement in management by staying out of personnel decisions, and refraining from helping or advising, let alone giving orders to staff. They channel requests for information and other communication with school system staff through the superintendent.

The Board as Governing Unit

Board members act only as part of the group, not as individuals. This principle of collective action is a basic premise in school board governance nationally. It requires that a board have a process for dealing productively with its differences and exercise discipline over its members. "If a board seriously intends to speak with only one voice, it must declare that the staff can safely ignore advice and instructions from individual trustees, that only the explicit instructions of the board must be heeded. Excellence in governance will not occur until superintendents are certain that trustees as a group will protect them from trustees as individuals" (John Carver, Remaking Governance).

Board Member Qualities

There is no definitive list of the attributes of good board members. Most of the writings of school board members and experts on this subject, however, say that a good board member is a person who is:

  • Committed to serve the best interests of all students and respond to needs of all segments of the community
  • Motivated by a desire to serve children and community rather than personal ambition
  • A good team player -- not a "lone ranger" -- who works with other team members and is committed to respecting the will of the majority and supporting Board decisions despite disagreement
  • Understands and accepts the role of a Board member and its limits
  • A hard worker, who does his or her homework and comes to meetings prepared
  • An effective communicator
  • Unafraid to speak up for his or her position but is at the same time respectful, fair-minded, consistent, professional, and able to separate personal issues from policy decisions
  • Absolutely honest with a strong personal code of ethics
  • Able to spend sufficient time on Board work
  • Unequivocally committed to public education and excellence in public education as the right of every student in the school system

Issues & Questions for Candidates

Questions about Issues:

  • Equity: fair distribution of school funding and educational opportunities
  • Board-Superintendent relationship: the Board's process for selecting and evaluating the Superintendent and the ability of the Board and Superintendent to work collaboratively
  • Public information: compilation, adequacy and accessibility to the public
  • Curriculum and program content: quality and availability of education in basic skills (the three R's), vocational education, science/technology, the arts, athletics and PE, etc.
  • Assessment: methods used to evaluate student progress
  • Special needs populations: the quality, cost and availability of services for special education and language minority students
  • Security and student discipline: safety in and around school buildings and responses to student behavior problems
  • Teachers and principals: recruitment, hiring, evaluation and retention, including the role of unions
  • School site-based management: local school autonomy vs. centralized control and the role of and support for Local School Restructuring teams
  • Parent involvement: school receptivity to parents; school outreach, and systems for resolving and tracking constituent complaints
  • School choice: parental options within DC Public Schools and the impact of public charter schools
  • Schools as community centers:, the role of the schools in providing or facilitating government and other agency services for students and families, including adult education, the accessibility of facilities for community use
  • Facilities: size and organization of schools, condition and repairs, and school closings
  • Management systems: fixing payroll, personnel, procurement, food service operations

No candidate should be expected to hove detailed knowledge about all of these issues, nor to have professional training or expertise on them. But candidates should have sufficient familiarity with the schools and the community to be able to discuss what the issues are about to state the priorities on which they would focus, and to articulate the Board of Education's rode in dealing with them.

Questions About Candidates:

  • What makes the candidate qualified to deal with the Board roles and responsibilities?
  • What is the candidate's personal involvement with the DC Public Schools? Are or have his/her children been enrolled, and for how long? Volunteer work? PTA/HSA membership?
  • What is the candidate's involvement in the community? Has. he/she ever done volunteer work? What, specifically?
  • What is the candidate's experience working in organized groups? Was he/she served on a another multimember board? Has he/she came to meetings faithfully and well-prepared?
  • What is the candidate's idea of how a Board member should tarry out his/her responsibilities?

For the full document
"Choosing Effective School Board Members:
District of Columbia Elections, November 7, 2000"

DC League of Women Voters' Website


For more information on School boards

DC Appleseed Center, "Reforming the D.C. Board of Education: A Building Block for Better Public Schools," September 1999, www.appleseeds.net/dc
Education Commission of the States, www.ecs.org
League of Women Voters, "Pick A Candidate," www.lwv.org
Institute for Education Leadership, www.iel.org

Metropolitan Nashville Public Education Foundation &  Nashville League of Women Voters. "School Board Candidate? Who? Me?" www.nashville.kl2.tn.us/general info folder/SchBdReq.html

For information on the Candidates

WAMU, Election 2000, www.wamu.org
DC Watch, www.dcwatch.com
DC League of Women Voters, www.dnet.com

DC School Board Information Project
Glenda Partee, American Youth Policy Forum
Angela Christophe, ANC Assembly
Joshua Wyner, DC Appleseed Center
Elizabeth Martin, DC League of Women Voters
Linda Moody, DC Congress of Parents and Teachers
Erika Landberg, DC VOICE
Michael Ivey, Union of Vineyard Workers
Mary Levy & Iris Toyer, Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights

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