Say what you will about “good news” stories, the news media thrives on disaster, dysfunction, and entropy. “Students Getting a Great Education” may be a nice headline, but “Raging Bystander Leaps Atop Table Amid Bitter Board Dispute” (an actual story from a Midwestern district a few years back) is a lot more — how to put this? — fun to write.

Maybe that’s what a reporter from a weekly paper near Hartford, Conn., was thinking when he faced one of those “all the news is good” problems and came up with a novel way of finding that kernel of controversy that is the news media’s lifeblood.

It’s seems that the Berlin Board of Education had an unusual number of 9-0 votes on major issues, which may have seemed fine to the untrained (read “non-media”) eye. But what if there was some nefarious reason why the board was voting in seeming lockstep, a hidden power beneath its guise of comity? An exposé was clearly in the making, and the reporter went right to one of his primary sources — Board President gbrochu — to ferret it out.

Brochu laughs as he tells this story:

“Why is it you never disagree about anything?” the reporter asked.

“What makes you think we don’t disagree?” an amused Brochu answered.

In Berlin, a 3,000-student district in the suburbs south of Hartford, of course disagreements exist. What the reporter didn’t grasp was that the board members talked these disagreements out in committees long before those votes. They made sure they all had the same information (and understood that information) so that, when it came time to vote on a given issue, the way forward was usually apparent to all.

“We aspire,” says Brochu, not entirely joking, to “boring professionalism.”

Shared understanding

Now Berlin’s “boring professionalism” has been codified into a board member handbook, copies of which have been requested by boards in Colorado, Florida, New York, and other states.

Of course, the work of a board member is anything but boring — unless you consider the nurturing and education of America’s future leaders to be a trivial task. What Berlin’s board is seeking to standardize is a shared understanding of the job and a way of deliberating, behaving, and conducting itself that reflects that common belief.

“The expectation is that it be a professional board,” says Robert J. Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. “It acts respectfully and responsibly to each other as well as to the staff. Hopefully, it will be institutionalized.”

Rick Maloney, vice president of the board of directors for the University Place School District near Tacoma, Wash., heard Rader and Brochu speak on the handbook at NSBA’s 2012 Annual Conference in San Diego.

“They gave a great presentation on how they approach the job of a board member, and a board member handbook really fits well with their approach,” Maloney says.

In fact, Maloney liked what the speakers had to say so much that he asked for a copy of Berlin’s handbook to use as a template for his own board. He revised it for his 5,000-student district, and now he and Ken Gass, a board member for the Bellingham Public schools whose board also revised the handbook for its own use, have made a presentation on board handbooks themselves.

Core values

So what does Berlin’s handbook look like? It’s 22 pages long, including a helpful three-page list of commonly used educational acronyms and what they mean. That list alone would be worth a read by any new board member or anyone brushing up on what a DSAP is (for the record, Durational Shortage Area Permit).

It starts with a two-paragraph preamble, followed by a mission statement, board goals (student achievement, communication, facilities and educational adequacy, and board governance), and core values. Among these values:

Deliberate in many voices, but govern as one.

Cultivate a sense of group responsibility; understanding that it is the board, not the staff or the administration, which is responsible for excellence in governance.

The second core value resonated with Brochu when, after one of his presentations, a board member from another district approached him and said her board’s meetings would be less dysfunctional if it wasn’t for the superintendent. Brochu didn’t buy that, saying that it was the board’s responsibility, not the superintendent’s, to make the meetings productive.

The seventh core value is also telling: “Commit, both individually and collectively, to being well-informed on local, state, and national issues.”

Despite this kind of effort from board members, there will be times when Brochu senses that some board members might not fully understand an issue. At these times, the board is inclined to postpone the vote so members can get more information. This is one way of avoiding divided votes, which often is caused more by misunderstanding than by a fundamental difference in board policy.

“We can disagree, but the question is: What are we disagreeing about?” Brochu says.

If, for example, you’re continually needing to discuss Robert’s Rules of Order — well, you’ve got bigger problems than just procedure, Brochu says. He recalls a board president from another district once telling him “All I need is five votes” to get something through his nine-member board.

“I agree with you,” Brochu replied. “You only need five to pass — but then what?”

David B. Erwin, Berlin’s superintendent, doesn’t have to deal with that problem.

“It’s really been great working with them, because there’s such an ethos of strong professionalism in this district,” Erwin says.

Maintaining board culture

If a district’s board and staff are so professional, why do you even need a handbook? Brochu talks a lot about the importance of continuity, about leaving a legacy and a board culture that does not depend on one or more person’s personality or dedication.

It’s the very opposite of the idea, popularized in some school districts, that one person (a superintendent, perhaps) can come into a troubled district, shake things up for the better, then turn around and ride off into the sunset a few years later. Rarely is this kind of progress — if, indeed, it is real progress — sustained.

Another reason for a handbook is that board membership changes, sometimes dramatically. Berlin, for example, welcomed three new board members this fall, but its board culture remained the same.

As University Place puts it in its board handbook: “A new board is formed every time a new member joins.”

The changes may not be great if a new member joins a large board, but the dynamic will shift nonetheless. That’s even truer for someone joining a small board like University Place’s, which has just five members.

“In our case, one board member — that’s 20 percent of the vote,” Maloney says.

‘Soft power’

In addition to underlying principals and guidelines, Berlin’s handbook also addresses specifics such as NSBA’s Key Work of School Boards, and has descriptions of the district’s three standing committees. Erwin, who says he knows of districts with 15 or 16 such committees, says he appreciates that his board took the time to limit the number to what it considered the board’s core functions.

These are represented by a student achievement committee, a communications committee, and an educational resources committee. Of course, additional temporary or ad hoc committees can be formed as the needs arise.

Berlin is a high-performing district, and in recent years student achievement has been increasing. This year, for example, nearly 50 percent of 10th-graders were deemed “advanced” on state writing tests, compared to about 25 percent in 2007.

The district was also one of 477 honored this year by the College Board for increasing access to Advanced Placement (AP) coursework while maintaining or increasing the percentage of students scoring 3 or higher on AP exams.

School board members do more than vote on issues and make policy: They set the tone and model the behavior for the entire district — something Brochu refers to as the board’s “soft power.” And it is this influence that the board member handbook seeks to leverage for the benefit of the entire school system and community.

“We have an obligation, a moral obligation to model for the district how we expect the district to conduct itself,” Brochu says. “We want to say, ‘This is who we are. This is what we agree together to be, and we’re going to hold ourselves accountable.’”

Click here to view the article on the ASBJ website.

Reproduced with permission from the February/2014 issue of American School Board Journal. Copyright © 2014, National School Boards Association.