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Back to Basics on Local School Board Governance

What’s the job of a local school board? What’s the proper role for individual board members? The recent series of highly contentious Santa Clara Unified board meetings spotlights the importance of these fundamental issues – you could call it getting “back to basics” – about school governance.

The California School Boards Association, a public education policy and advocacy association of local California school boards, offers some “best practices” answers to these questions, which we have taken the liberty to reprint here without comment or redaction. SCUSD is a CSBA member.

CSBA Professional Governance Standards for Local School Boards (


Public oversight of local government is the foundation of American democracy. Nowhere is this more evident than in our public schools, where local boards of education are entrusted by their diverse communities to uphold the Constitution, protect the public interest in schools and ensure that a high quality education is provided to each student. To maximize the public’s confidence in local government, our local boards must govern responsibly and effectively.

These Professional Governance Standards describe the three components vital to effective school governance:

  • The attributes of an effective individual trustee,
  • The attributes of an effective governing board, and
  • The specific jobs the board performs in its governance role.
The Individual Trustee

In California’s public education system, a trustee is a person elected or appointed to serve on a school district or county board of education. Individual trustees bring unique skills, values and beliefs to their board. In order to govern effectively, individual trustees must work with each other and the superintendent to ensure that a high quality education is provided to each student.

To be effective, an individual trustee:

  • Keeps learning and achievement for all students as the primary focus.
  • Values, supports and advocates for public education.
  • Recognizes and respects differences of perspective and style on the board and among staff, students, parents and the community.
  • Acts with dignity, and understands the implications of demeanor and behavior.
  • Keeps confidential matters confidential.
  • Participates in professional development and commits the time and energy necessary to be an informed and effective leader.
  • Understands the distinctions between board and staff roles, and refrains from performing management functions that are the responsibility of the superintendent and staff.
  • Understands that authority rests with the board as a whole and not with individuals.
The Board

School districts and county offices of education are governed by boards, not by individual trustees. While understanding their separate roles, the board and superintendent work together as a “governance team.” This team assumes collective responsibility for building unity and creating a positive organizational culture in order to govern effectively. To operate effectively, the board must have a unity of purpose and:

  • Keep the district focused on learning and achievement for all students.
  • Communicate a common vision.
  • Operate openly, with trust and integrity.
  • Govern in a dignified and professional manner, treating everyone with civility and respect.
  • Govern within board-adopted policies and procedures.
  • Take collective responsibility for the board’s performance.
  • Periodically evaluate its own effectiveness.
  • Ensure opportunities for the diverse range of views in the community to inform board deliberations.
The Board’s Jobs

The primary responsibilities of the board are to set a direction for the district, provide a structure by establishing policies, ensure accountability and provide community leadership on behalf of the district and public education. To fulfill these responsibilities, there are a number of specific jobs that effective boards must carry out:

  • Involve the community, parents, students and staff in developing a common vision for the district focused on learning and achievement and responsive to the needs of all students.
  • Adopt, evaluate and update policies consistent with the law and the district’s vision and goals.
  • Maintain accountability for student learning by adopting the district curriculum and monitoring student progress.
  • Hire and support the superintendent so that the vision, goals and policies of the district can be implemented.
  • Conduct regular and timely evaluations of the superintendent based on the vision, goals and performance of the district, and ensure that the superintendent holds district personnel accountable.
  • Adopt a fiscally responsible budget based on the district’s vision and goals, and regularly monitor the fiscal health of the district.
  • Ensure that a safe and appropriate educational environment is provided to all students.
  • Establish a framework for the district’s collective bargaining process and adopt responsible agreements.
  • Provide community leadership on educational issues and advocate on behalf of students and public education at the local, state and federal levels


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