After a long and fraught campaign season, Richmond has a new school board, an important change that can get overlooked amid all of the local, state and national voting news. We are one of only two Virginia cities with all board seats up for election at the same time. This can mean more frequent turnover than on boards with staggered terms. This January, Richmond Public Schools (RPS) will welcome four members who are new to the current administration and five returning members. While this is a significant shift, it is below the 78% and 100% turnover in board members that led to superintendent changes in 2013 and 2017, respectively. This lowering of “leadership churn” brings an opportunity as RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras’ administration leads in its third full school year. Using the time between now and board members’ swearing-in can help with the challenge that will influence all of the other challenges ahead: creating an effective governance team.
K-12 education is a complex sector governed by nearly 13,000 independent school boards. These “little democracies” are both the reason for hope and despair about the state of our political system. Where governing is strong, so are student outcomes. Where it falls apart, the system stagnates and student achievement suffers. Yet the move from candidate to board member often is overlooked as an opportunity for building a foundation for governance success. An effective transition from election to public service is not an organic progression; indeed the very skills that win candidates school board seats often are the same skills to de-emphasize as a board member.
Political campaigns, by their very nature, are “me” propositions. “Vote for me” is the fundamental assertion of every candidate, and the reasons why it should be “me” over someone else are what voters take to the polls to make their final choice. In contrast, effective governance requires a shift to a “we” mentality, meaning individual members must build relationships and trust by preparing for and sharing the work. This is not to confuse a strong team with a homogenous or unanimous one; indeed, strong teams don’t avoid productive conflict; rather, they encourage the diverse viewpoints that produce better outcomes. The difference lies in the “productive” part; dissent that leads to improvement depends upon shared accountability and norms of engagement. Training and practice can ensure the difference between productive and destructive conflict.
Training also can help winning candidates understand the unique role of being a member of a corporate body. Unlike other elected officials, school board members have no individual authority under state law. This means that members who have campaigned for constituent votes in a distinct political district now must govern with a whole system perspective. Providing a perspective unique to each distinct community yet voting with the needs of all 24,000 RPS students at the forefront makes for a very delicate balance — one that can get overlooked without knowledge and intention.
RPS is a school division that faces historical, structural, fiscal and other significant impediments to sustainable improvement. The learning curve for new board members in the city is huge in a typical year. But the next few years (or more) will necessitate big decisions about how to respond to issues prompted by the pandemic, such as psychological trauma and educational loss. Those needs will arise in an economic context that wasn’t fully supporting traditional needs prepandemic, so the board will face competing priorities for finite resources. Tough debates await. Building psychological safety for group risk-taking, agreeing to shared operating norms and developing interpersonal trust are among the essential conditions for successful governance in challenging contexts like these. They don’t happen overnight or by happenstance, and without attention and intention, we can see the negative board dynamics arise that make headlines — and subpar decision-making — become more common than they should be across the K-12 landscape.
The pressures to quickly act on a variety of important decisions will be immense when this board takes charge, so it will be tempting to “hit the ground voting” while simultaneously trying to learn the processes and relationships that actually ensure effective governance. On the other hand, spending time now to prepare for four years together could bring a payoff — a strong governance team well prepared to navigate diverse opinions and hard issues — as big as the challenges these public servants soon will face.
Kimberly M. Bridges is a former member and chair of the Richmond School Board, and is an assistant professor and co-coordinator of the Ed.D. Program in K-12 Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Education. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org