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Chairman's Gavel: Becoming Board President

Chairman's Gavel: Becoming Board President

By Susan Salter | AASB Director of Leadership Development 

Becoming president of your school board can be a little like catching a tiger by the tail. Once you’ve got it, what do you do with it?

Though many school boards simply rotate the presidency without regard to the leadership skills required, the position does require a variety of skills.


In fact, the best board presidents function as servant leaders, taking care to listen to other board members and the superintendent, working to prevent or solve conflicts, working to persuade but not coerce, keeping an eye on the long-term goals, creating an atmosphere of stewardship among the board members and building a sense of teamwork and community among the board and superintendent.


While those are lofty aspirations for any leader, as board president you can move toward them by:

  • Knowing and understanding how to use parliamentary procedure. When you use Robert’s Rules of Order correctly and judiciously, parliamentary procedure can be an effective tool for keeping the board meeting on track. It can keep your meetings orderly and moving, allowing the board to discuss even sensitive items civilly. Conversely, an important part of your responsibility as president is to ensure that board members don’t use these rules as to out maneuver each other or simply kill proposals they oppose. Keep the focus on common sense and fairness to prevent Robert’s Rules from becoming a weapon.

    Robert’s Rules also makes clear that small boards (including school boards) can operate less formally than large ones. The idea is that the formal procedures required for large boards can sometimes hinder operations of smaller groups. This lower level of formality means it is acceptable for you, as board president, to make and second motions without relinquishing the gavel. Note, however, that in relaxing the formality, Robert’s Rules goes farther than may be advisable for school boards. For example, it specifies that motions don’t have to be seconded and that the board need not get a motion on the table before discussing a topic. However, as a public governing body (rather than the board of an organization), citizens will expect you to follow certain well-established procedures, including requiring a second when a motion is made and requiring motions before discussion.
  • Managing discussions fairly. One of the trickiest parts of your role as president is to manage the board’s discussion of issues. It is critical to establish a climate in which all board members feel their opinions will be listened to and considered. At the same time, however, you also serve as a gatekeeper. If one member begins to dominate, you will need to politely note that you want to be sure all members have a chance to weigh in. At times, it may even be necessary to say something like, “Before I call on John again, Mary, how do you feel about this issue?”
  • Handling the gavel impartially. Being impartial doesn’t mean you don’t have opinions. Clearly, you have an obligation to your constituents to vote on just about all issues that come before the board and, as noted above, you can make and second motions as well as comment on them. Just be sure to treat each member of the board with respect and take great care not settle (or even appear to settle) scores with a member by ignoring or dismissing him at the board table.
  • Taking a peacemaker role behind the scenes. This doesn’t mean injecting yourself in every controversy, but rather working to keep the lines of communication open among the team members. If you sense two members have become crossed up with each other, consider whether you can help mediate their differences so that the board continues to work effectively together.
  • Keeping the board focused on its mission, vision and goals. Effective board presidents can accomplish this in a variety of ways, including working with the board to develop an annual planning calendar so that the board makes time to review specific goals and/or data throughout the year. Using such a calendar, you might make June the month the board always reviews progress on the previous year’s goals and sets new ones for the coming year. It also can help the board schedule time throughout the year to review achievement data or impact data for specific programs. Such activities keep your board looking forward and measuring actual performance against where you want to be.
  • Focusing on continuous improvement. It can be easy to get so focused on the progress of the school system that the board loses site of its own performance. As president, encourage the board to conduct an annual self-evaluation and set goals for improving its performance in areas it indicated could use improvement.



Originally published in March 2012.


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