What Does a Board of Education Member Do (and Why Should You Care)?

This opinion piece first appeared on VillageGreenNJ.com on October 14, 2015 and has been updated and edited for republication. The author is Madhu Pai, 2nd Vice President of the South Orange Maplewood Board of Education. Pai has one more year to serve in her second term and is not currently running for office.

Madhu Pai

What Does a Board of Education Member Do (and Why Should You Care)?

Across South Orange and Maplewood, lawn signs will soon be popping up.  Debates are being scheduled.  The Village Green and Maplewood Online are abuzz and people will be gathering over coffee and wine to discuss the candidates.  The Board of Education election season has begun!

With nearly 60% of your local tax dollars going to support our school district, the Board of Education vote on November 7th is important for all community members.  When you go to the polls this year, it’s critical to know not only whom you’re voting for but also exactly what they’ll be doing.  The role of a Board of Education member may not be what you think.

The Board of Education (BOE) is a body of 9 individuals who serve as a governing entity that ensures our school district is being run efficiently and effectively. Each board member’s term is three years long, and three seats are up for re-election each year.  Currently Elizabeth Baker is the Board President, Chris Sabin is the 1st Vice President and I (Madhu Pai) am the 2nd Vice President of the BOE.

The Board of Education is very different from a PTA board, which works to support the Principal in enriching the school day. The BOE sets policy and goals for the school district, hires the Superintendent (when necessary) and holds the Superintendent accountable for implementing policy and meeting goals through proper management of the school district. Our role is defined as Policy Governance.

To best implement policy governance and direct the Superintendent, the BOE must speak with one voice.  This is accomplished through alignment and ‘action’ taken via vote on resolutions (recommendations) that come before the BOE.  The majority vote represents the voice of the Board.  While the BOE is not (and should not) always be unified in opinion, to be effective it must be unified in it’s goal of providing one set of marching orders to the Superintendent. Good BOE members collaborate and work as a team.

The key responsibilities of BOE members are:

  1. To hire and oversee the Superintendent 

The Superintendent is the BOE’s sole employee, responsible for management of the district and how it operates. The BOE is also responsible for evaluating the Superintendent’s performance against the annual district goals, as well as on-going oversight of District management.  With the departure of Dr. Ramos in August, the BOE quickly brought in an interim Superintendent, Dr. Thomas Ficarra. With Dr. Ficarra’s help, the BOE will embark on the important task of hiring a new permanent Superintendent for the school district. Hiring and oversight of the Superintendent is, perhaps, the most important role of a Board of Education.

  1. To set a vision for the district and write policy

The board sets policy that leads to an end result for the district.  The current board has set multiple policies about things like school safety, teacher evaluation and standardized testing, among other things. You can find our district policies here: https://www.somsd.k12.nj.us/page/39

Among the Board’s recently passed policies are Policy 5755.1: Access and Equity, Policy 5756: Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students, Policy 5750.1: Student Disabilities Pursuant to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation act of 1973 and Policy 5512: Harassment, Intimidation, Bullying & Hazing.

The Access and Equity policy is perhaps the most ambitious policy passed in recent years. It is intended to redefine the way the school district operates by providing choice and open access for all students to take more rigorous classes.  The policy will ensure that rigor is a part of all curriculum. It will empower and enable students to take on challenging coursework.  It will hopefully provide teachers with a stronger voice in determining how teaching and learning will happen in this district, and will help guide the implementation of the District’s Strategic Plan.  

  1. To set District Goals

The board evaluates the Superintendent under District Goals across 5 elements that she/he must manage: Curriculum and Instruction, Communications, Financial Management, Hiring and Development of Staff, and Facilities & Technology. Over the last two years, the BOE has worked to make the district goals more streamlined, focused on policy governance and consistent with recent changes in state and federal education policy.

  1. To set the Operating Budget tax cap for budget development. 

Every BOE candidate is asked questions about how they will approach the budget. The BOE doesn’t create the budget. Nor does the BOE redline or vote on individual items on the budget. The BOE’s role is to oversee an effective budget development process, set a tax cap on the Operating Budget intended to prevent tax increases that would hurt taxpayers, and adopt resolutions that can benefit the school budget.

  1. To negotiate contracts with the Teachers and Administrators Union

Over the last few contract cycles, the BOE has successfully reached agreements with both the Teachers Union and the Administrators Union. We have avoided the contentious, multi-year negotiations that have hurt both our staff and students in the past.  We are currently in negotiations with both the Teachers and Administrators unions currently. It’s critical that the BOE continue the momentum of reaching mutually beneficial contractual agreements in a timely manner and maintain the positive momentum of mutual respect and trust that has been created with our teachers and staff during the negotiations process.

Being a BOE member is a complex role that requires a fundamental understanding of policy governance.  As the NJ School Boards Association aptly puts it, “(The BOE’s) job is not to run the schools; it is to see that the schools are well run”. The lines between policy governance (BOE work) and district management (Administration work) can get blurred on the campaign trail with promises made or ideas presented about specific programs or budget items.  It’s important to note that district management is not the role of a school board. The Superintendent manages running the district, focusing on details like developing curriculum, managing staff, creating the budget and recommending specific educational programs.

A good BOE doesn’t actively interfere with the Superintendent’s operation with the district, or with the day-to-day work of principals or teachers. To do so would demoralize district Administration and also prevent the BOE from doing its own work to move our district forward.  A good BOE member understands that what matters most isn’t simply supporting or punishing the Superintendent and Administration. Rather, our role is to find thoughtful ways to motivate the Administration while demanding accountability and providing constructive feedback.

It is my sincere hope that the entire community has a chance to interact with all of the candidates this election season.  In doing so, I hope this explanation of a BOE member’s roles and responsibilities will provide some context to evaluate which candidates have the best experience, expertise, vision and skills to be effective BOE members.  Please have your say and cast your three votes for the Board of Education on November 7th. 

Madhu Pai is a South Orange resident, proud Jefferson Elementary and South Orange Middle School mom, and the 2nd Vice President of the South Orange Maplewood Board of Education.

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