School committees urged to work together, communicate 

Martha's Vineyard Regional High School — MVTimes

The All Island School Committee reached a quorum this week and received a lesson on school committee governance and communication.

Dorothy Presser, curriculum developer, workshop presenter, and field director for the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) gave the presentation on Wednesday, which was originally scheduled for last September. It’s been postponed due to scheduling conflicts, and a lack of quorum at a few meetings.  

Presser’s presentation focused on fostering best practices for effective school district governance teams in pursuit of student achievement. Communication, community support, and establishing unified values were the main points Presser emphasized.

The presentation comes as the school’s superintendent has been calling for school committees and their members to work together and communicate better.

“The overarching mission of any school committee, any school board anywhere, is continuous improvement of student achievement,” Presser told committee members. “What do you really want your students to know and be able to do, the competencies they have developed, as they move through your schools?” 

Presser defined the governance team as being made up of district school committees, the superintendent, and school administrations. Having trained in district school governance and now being the field director for MASC, Presser presented “a piece of the rules and responsibilities” of school governance.

“There’s actually been a body of research done on what makes an effective school committee that has a positive impact on student achievement,” she said. “We do know that what happens at the committee table has an impact down into the classroom.” 

Presser highlighted the importance of having a unified set of norms, active self governance, continuing professional development, and positive relations and support from the community. She talked about expectations, goals, planning, and problem-solving, and fostering positive relationships among the governance team and surrounding communities. 

Presser also acknowledged the negative impact of conflict. “When there’s a lot of conflict, that’s where people’s energy is focused, they’re focusing on the conflict rather than the process of moving forward,” she said. 

This spring has been an active one, fraught with conflict for the school boards and committees.The primary conflict that has drawn the community’s attention is that of the turf-field litigation. The fiduciary responsibility of the committee, Presser reminded the committee, is to make sure the financial resources of the distract are being used appropriately as seen by the community.  

“The budget is the biggest resource you have to implement your goals,” she said.

She said that the way a committee uses the funds is one of the strongest tools a school has to maintain positive relations with the community. Budgets contain policy implications, the impact of which radiates beyond the school campus. With student’s successful outcomes being the goal of a good school governance, community response is critical. Above all, the focus should be on student achievement and improving student outcomes. 

Presser went on to acknowledge the importance of self governance, self evaluation, and continued professional development for all members of school governance, as well as fostering positive team building qualities like communication, collaboration, trust, respect, and accountability. 

On the topic of self-governance, Superintendent Richard Smith, who brought Presser for the presentation, weighed in, stating he hoped the group could consider the frequency, duration, and consistency of location and start time for meetings. 

“I think they are challenging for everybody, and I think that’s maybe one of the issues around quorum,” said Superintendent Smith. “We all could stand to take inventory of how we’re doing things and how often we’re doing things, and how we might be able to be more effective and efficient in a smaller amount of time.” 

“When we talk about quorum issues, I may sound ungrateful and I don’t want to come across that way,” Smith said. “I am grateful for the commitment that you all make as school committee members.” 

He said members who were unable to attend meetings were contacted to better accommodate their needs in the future. Regular attendance of meetings “is certainly an obligation. That’s an obligation that all of our members have as much as our administration,” said Smith. 

Lastly, Presser urged the committee to establish a set of norms and expectations to create a unified front. 

“One of the suggestions that we have about best practice is that school committees develop a set of norms and have good conversations about how we are going to work together,” said Presser. 

Tisbury Committee member Amy Houghton asked Presser the best and most “positive, proactive way” to navigate concerns of members not acting within the will of the committee. 

Presser encouraged reminding committee members of their obligations. 

“Try bringing people to realize that the only way they might be able to accomplish what they’d like to accomplish is as a member of the team,” Presser advised. “There’s a difference between the committee and being a member of the committee. The committee really only exists when there’s a properly posted meeting with a quorum present,” said Presser, highlighting the importance of having a quorum. “Everyone needs to be willing to devote time to do the job well.”  

Presser encouraged understanding and respect for different roles. She encouraged proactively setting up pathways of communication to help people across different roles operate and communicate effectively with one another to progress school goals. 

A highly implemented structure and good work being done at the top trickles down to influence other employees, Presser assured. This begins with unified values and agreed upon methods of execution. 

MASC training helps committee members understand the more specialized details of their sector, including school finance, open meeting law, conflicts of interest law, public records, special education, collective bargaining, school leadership, standards and evaluations, and the rules and responsibilities of their position.

School committee members are expected to complete training within one year of their appointment or election. Training is provided by MASC at no charge. 

Professional development opportunities offered by MASC are available for school administrators and committee members this spring and summer.