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Texas School Board Governance Reform

School Board Governance Reform
A Policy Briefing Paper – May 2014
Center for Reform of School Systems


School boards have been around since the nation’s early beginnings, when responsibility for educating children was entirely left to local communities.  Even as education has evolved over the centuries, as standards have been introduced and demands for academic accountability have triggered the increasing role of the state and federal governments, school boards have remained the primary governing body for K-12 education.  Currently, there are about 14,000 school boards nationwide, and all but roughly 5% of them are elected.  In Texas, which has 1,043 districts, 1,038 boards are elected, while five boards, governing districts on military bases, are appointed by the state board of education.[1]

Nationally, in the late 20th century, elected school boards became the target of critics who either blamed them as the root cause of their chronically underperforming districts or dismissed them as institutions that had outlived their usefulness.  Mayors in such major cities as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Washington, DC, took control of their cities’ school districts or replaced the elected boards with appointed boards.  Nowhere, however, did the switch from elected to appointed boards prove a panacea.

Only in recent years have researchers started looking at school boards in a concerted effort to understand the link between school board performance and the academic performance of their districts.  Even though the research is still sketchy, recent studies have been trying to answer two key questions about school district governance: What are the characteristics of high-performing school boards? And what impact do they have on student achievement in their districts?


Emerging research is beginning to identify the characteristics commonly held by school boards in districts that are outperforming peer districts with similar student populations.  Much of the research is anecdotal or observational or gathered through surveys, but definite conclusions can be drawn. For one thing, high-performing school districts tend to have stable leadership, including long-serving school board members and superintendents.  Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia is a case in point.  The district, which won the national Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2010 and is again a finalist this year, has a five-member board with four of the five having served for at least 17 years.  Also, the district’s superintendent, J. Alvin Wilbanks, is in his 19th year as CEO.  However, longevity alone is clearly no guarantee of school board effectiveness.

In 2011, the Center for Public Education reviewed all the available research and identified other key characteristics that school boards from high-performing districts share.[2]   Based on the research, the center concluded that effective boards are accountability-driven, data-savvy, and focused on improving student achievement.  They set clear goals and align resources to meet their goals.  They are collaborative and communicative, and they work as a united team with the superintendent, though from the perspective of different roles.

In a study now in publication, researchers at the University of Southern Mississippi observed more than 150 school board meetings across the country to determine board behavior patterns in both high-performing and low-performing school districts.[3] Their findings:  board members in high-performing districts followed their meeting agendas, did not cave in to special interest groups, focused on student achievement, set clear expectations on learner outcomes, and received frequent updates from the superintendent on the district’s academic progress.

A study released March 2014 by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation found that school districts that “beat the odds” in performance tend to have board members who place student learning as a high priority.[4]  According to the study, the most effective board members tend to be political moderates who have professional backgrounds outside public education and are elected at-large during school board elections held the same day as major state or national elections. The study found no direct link to training since 95% of all board members surveyed said they receive training, but it did acknowledge that there was no way to evaluate the quality of the training.

However, Denise D. Quigley looked specifically at training when she evaluated the effectiveness of the Texas Institute for School Boards, conducted annually in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for newly elected school board members from the state’s 57 largest school districts.  The three-day institute, run by the Center for Reform of School Systems, focuses on both good governance practices and reform governance.

In this 2009 study, commissioned by the Houston Endowment, Quigley found that even as few as three days of “targeted professional training does influence individual board members’ behaviors and actions and contributes to change in entire board behavior.”[5]   The boards she surveyed credited the training with reduced micromanagement, increased board unity and teamwork, improved operating procedures, use of a common language around governance, and a greater focus on achievement and learning.  Though the study did not try to determine if the training resulted in higher student achievement, several of these identified board behaviors have been linked to higher performance in other studies.


In Texas, the standard size of school boards is seven members, although that number can vary under special circumstances.  Houston, for example, has nine.  School board members are generally elected at-large except in major urban areas where single-member trustee districts are common as a means of increasing racial and ethnic diversity.  School board elections are required to be held jointly with elections for municipalities, state and county offices, junior college boards, or, in certain cases, hospital district boards.  As a result, school boards have elections either in May or November.  Most are in May.

According to Texas state law[6], the duties of the school board are to govern and oversee the management of the school district; establish working relationships with other public entities; adopt comprehensive goals and monitor progress toward those goals; establish performance goals; ensure the superintendent is accountable for achieving performance results; establish a district- and campus-level planning and decision-making process; publish an annual educational performance report; adopt an annual budget; adopt a tax rate; monitor district finances; ensure the audit of fiscal accounts; publish an end-of-year financial report; conduct elections; conduct grievance hearings; establish district-wide policies and annual goals that are tied to the district’s vision statement and long-range plan; support the professional development of principals, teachers, and other staff; and periodically evaluate the board and superintendent leadership, governance, and teamwork.  In addition, boards may buy and sell property, issue bonds, employ a tax assessor/collector, and enter into contracts.

A minimal amount of professional development is required for all Texas board members.  Under rules adopted by the Texas State Board of Education[7], first-year board members must complete at least 10 hours of continuing education from a registered provider.  Board members in their second year and beyond are required to have at least five hours of continuing education every year.  In addition, the full board and the superintendent together must annually attend at least a three-hour session of team-building from a registered provider.


We believe that a legislative proposal for the 84th session could include the following:

·       Longer school board terms, preferably six years, but with a provision for the recall of misbehaving board members

This would not only increase board stability, but it would allow board members to do their jobs without worrying about voter repercussions for making such potentially controversial decisions as closing low-performing schools.

·       November elections in even years to maximize voter turnout for school board elections (though continuing with non-partisan races)

November elections typically have the highest voter turnout.  By taking steps to increase turnout, single-issue advocacy groups,  politically ideological organizations, special interests, and vendors making large contributions to buy favors are less likely to influence the outcome of the election.

·       A clearer definition of what the board can and can’t do and what the superintendent can and can’t do, including:

o   Making personnel decisions the clear duty of the superintendent and not the board (although superintendents should be expected to share recommended personnel actions with the board even when a vote is not required) Although the TEC outlines the duties of school boards and the duties of superintendents, it does not clearly state what boards can and can’t do versus what superintendents can and can’t do.  For example, hiring superintendents is clearly the responsibility of school boards.  However, if superintendents are held responsible for results, they should be allowed to hire their own team, although it is important practically and politically for superintendents to inform their boards of their decisions.

o   Greater leverage to allow boards to deal with errant board members and show cause to call in legal assistance when the line is persistently and maliciously crossed By defining the role of the board more clearly, it is more obvious when a board member departs from that role.  The contrast gives the rest of the board leverage to talk about this with the errant board member and seek legal assistance if necessary.

·       Up-or-down votes on the budget with no line-item veto authority

Requiring an up-or-down vote would remove the temptation for board members to micromanage the budget.

·       A requirement that newly elected board members from districts and open-enrollment charter schools have one year to complete training on the following topics or lose their seat

o   State law regarding public education

o   Roles and responsibilities, including an understanding of the roles and responsibilities of board members versus superintendents and the practice of proper oversight by the board

o   How to have effective and efficient board meetings, workshops, and committees

o   Local, state, and national data about student achievement, achievement gaps, and the challenges of changing demographics

o   Board policies, including types of policies (operational versus reform), how they can drive change, and the board’s role in their development and adoption

o   Reform governance strategies, including how to develop core beliefs and commitments, theories of action, and strategic plans, and how they can be linked to the superintendent’s annual evaluation

Research supports that school boards that are accountability-driven, data-savvy, and focused on improving student achievement are more likely to lead high-performing districts.  School board training should emphasize change governance.

[1] Local School Boards, Education Commission of the States.

[2] Chuck Dervaries and Eileen O’Brien, “Eight Characteristics of Effective School Boards,” Center for Public Education,  January 2011.

[3] Dr. David Lee, “Board Behaviors Linked to Student Achievement,” University of Southern Mississippi.  Dr. Lee presented his finding at the National School Boards Association convention, April 2014.

[4] Arnold F. Shober and Michael T. Hartney, “Does School Board Leadership Matter?” Thomas B. Fordham Institute, March 2014.

[5] Denise D. Quigley, “Teaching School Board Members about Reform Governance: Evaluation of the Texas Institute for School Board Training,” April 2009.

[6] TEC, Chapter 11, Subchapters B and D.

[7] Texas Administrative Code, Chapter 61, Subchapter A

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