Each school board in New Jersey has an NJSBA field service representative (FSR) assigned to it, who acts as the primary contact person for board members.

In addition to performing such tasks as training boards (on everything from board member ethics and parliamentary procedure to communicating with your community), conducting strategic planning or goal setting sessions, and doing superintendent searches, the FSRs field a steady stream of calls from board members asking questions on a wide range of topics.

When board members call FSRs with a question, they not only reach someone with a broad knowledge of school governance, boardsmanship and best practices, they also have access to someone who can truly empathize with their concerns — every current field service rep was once a member of a New Jersey board of education. So if an FSR says “I know what you mean,” chances are, they do!

Periodically they share some of their questions — and answers with School Leader magazine.  Below is the latest crop of advice from NJSBA’s FSRs.

Do you have a question that isn’t here? We encourage you to reach out to your district’s field service representative. If you’re not sure who that person is, the NJSBA website features an “FSR Finder.” Simply type your district name in, and your FSR’s name and contact information will pop up.

We had a board member resign in late March. We have advertised the opening but have not received any interest. What is our next step? Should we consider a reduction in board membership from 9 to 7?

When you advertised the position, where did you advertise? Was it simply a legal notice, or did you use other means? Consider using all available communication outlets to your advantage. Send home notices with students and place it on the district’s website or social media feeds. Be inclusive and send notices to all civic organizations in the community and use your key communicator groups.

Consider the message you are sending — equally important as getting the word out is putting in your advertising what the board member position entails, how much time they would be expected to contribute and what their role is on the board. People will volunteer if they know what they are volunteering for.

Also consider the power of “personal contact.” Board members often find themselves engaged in other volunteer or civic organizations and come into contact with other active community-minded individuals. Asking a simple question, such as “Have you ever thought about being on a school board?” might prompt someone to consider it. People tend to think more seriously about applying for the open seat when personal contact is involved.

When all else fails (and I mean all else) the board can consider a reduction in the number of board members. There is a process outlined in N.J.S.A. 18A:12-12 for reducing the number of board members. After passing a resolution, the question of reduction of board members must be put before the voters of the community at the next annual school board election to decide.

Does the whole board have to participate in the superintendent evaluation meetings or can we just assign it to a committee or leave it up to the president and vice president?

Evaluation of the superintendent is one of the most important annual responsibilities of a board of education. A superintendent reports to a body of trustees, not one or two members. It is important that all eligible members provide feedback into this process, so that a consensus opinion can be formulated.

It is required by statute (18A:17-20.3.) that “Every local board of education having a superintendent shall evaluate the performance of the superintendent at least once a year. Each evaluation shall be in writing, a copy shall be provided to the superintendent and the superintendent and the board shall meet to discuss the findings.”

Furthermore, N.J. code (6A:10-8.1; f.); Evaluation of chief school administrators) prescribes that: “The annual summary conference between the district board of education, with a majority of its total membership present, and the chief school administrator shall be held before the annual performance report is filed.”

So it is incumbent upon all non-conflicted board members to participate in this process from a legal perspective. But in addition to meeting legal and regulatory (NJQSAC) requirements, a board has an obligation to provide feedback, on a formal basis, to its superintendent to help determine the board’s perspective on progress toward district goals and to identify professional strengths and areas for development.

In addition, the summary document is a consensus document. Therefore, minority opinion is not reflected in the final summary. However, at the summary meeting, minority opinion can be expressed through discussion, which can be a valuable opportunity for board members and superintendents to communicate, learn, and grow.

My superintendent said that I cannot see all of the documents on file that I want to read.  Why not? I know how to keep the necessary information confidential and I need to be aware of what is occurring in my district.

Ethics training emphasizes that a board’s role is to see that schools are well run, but not to run the schools. Their oversight is accomplished by policy, setting goals, evaluating the chief school administrator and by developing a two-way communication with the stakeholders in the community.

However, boards are expected to make informed decisions and will need evidence provided that will support the superintendent’s recommendations.  This can be made available to board members in a variety of ways — progress reports on goals, weekly packets, superintendent reports, discussion at board meetings, committee reports, and board requests for additional data.

Members should be encouraged to ask questions in a manner that is customary for that board, so that they can be well-prepared for the upcoming meeting. The board can discuss a preferred process for obtaining information, whether working through the board president with requests, or calling the superintendent directly. If the information discussed is pertinent to a decision, that information is best shared with all members in a timely manner.

A helpful tip for making requests:  the board speaks in one voice, and that is the voice that directs the superintendent, not the individual members. Should an issue rise to the board level, and the board needs further testimony or reports to make its decision, that conversation can take place with the superintendent prior to coming to a vote.

Working as a cooperative team, your board can develop a culture of its own for sharing the appropriate documentation that will be helpful in making board decisions.

The board secretary did not record in the minutes the remarks I made during our discussion about certain agenda items. In fact, none of the board members’ remarks are in the minutes. How can I correct that?

Actually, your Board Secretary is following best practices by not including discussion in the minutes! Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 11th edition, notes that minutes are a “record of what was done [at a meeting], not what was said.” Minutes should contain basic information about the meeting, such as time, location, and attendance; and all of the motions proffered, passed, and defeated. (Withdrawn motions need not be included.) The results of the votes taken at the meeting, and how each member voted on roll call votes, are essential. But meeting minutes are best viewed as a record, not a recording. They aren’t meant to be transcripts of all of the discussions that happened at the board table. If your meeting minutes are “boring,” then that’s a good thing! If, however, you see a factual error in the minutes, when the board is about to approve the minutes and the meeting presider says, “The minutes of (date) meeting have been prepared and distributed to board members. Are there any corrections?,” you should state what in the minutes needs to be adjusted. If you would like for community members who can’t attend to get a fuller picture of what happens at your public meetings, your board could consider video- or audio-taping your public meetings, and/or livestreaming them. It’s a worthy discussion for the board to have.

Is the July 1 a hard deadline for completion of the superintendent’s evaluation that is linked to NJQSAC?

As per the most recent adopted NJQSAC Regulations, effective July 1, 2018, boards of education must complete the superintendent’s evaluation by July 1 as per N.J.A.C. 6A: 10-8.1 (g). Failing to do so will result in the board losing 6 points on the NJQSAC Governance DPR. This includes all parts on the superintendent evaluation including the summary conference with the full board or with the members of the board who are not conflicted in participating in the superintendent evaluation process.

I was upfront and vocal at a board meeting in my opposition to a policy change and voted against it — but the majority of the board voted to approve it. Now people are asking me what I think about it. I still don’t agree with the change. What should I say?

All board votes occur during public session so your “nay” vote is on the record. You can affirm that you voted against the particular policy, however, it is recommended that board members, when in the minority opinion, recognize and support the majority opinion/vote of the board. It is “the board” that makes decisions and has authority. Recognizing and supporting the majority opinion of the board, even when in the minority opinion, can go a long way in assisting the community and staff in recognizing and respecting the authority of the full board.

We have an interim superintendent who will only be with us until July 1. Are we required to complete a superintendent evaluation for the year the interim has spent in our district?

Yes, the board is statutorily required to complete an annual superintendent evaluation whether the superintendent is an interim or a permanent superintendent.

Why should our board pursue NJSBA’s Board Certification?

Building the board’s team through training together demonstrates to the school community that the board is committed to building shared knowledge, values, and expectations. Team development and training is identified as one of the Center for Public Education’s Eight Traits of Effective School Boards that distinguishes high-achieving districts that positively impact student achievement.

NJSBA revised the Board Certification criteria within the past year to encourage more boards to strive for this opportunity. Requirements include:

  • Earning 16 credits (1 hour of training = 1 credit) of group training within four years.
  • Demonstrating board effectiveness through a Board Self-Evaluation, the governance section of NJQSAC, and compliant mandatory training.
  • Completing a Policy Wellness Check and review of a district bargaining agreement.

Field Services will work with your board to develop a schedule and programs that meet the unique needs of your district. While recognition of this accomplishment takes place at your county meeting, the true reward will be evidenced in the development of your board team.

Is there ever a time when I should go directly to a staff member at the school rather than the superintendent for information on something?

The basic answer is no. The School Ethics Act and the Code of Ethics for School Board Members governs the behavior of board members and boards of education. The concept of “chain of command” is extremely important for board members to understand. All school district employees have a chain of command which ultimately leads upward to the superintendent. For the superintendent, his/her chain of command leads upward to the board of education. Because the board of education has only one district employee who directly reports to them, the superintendent, their downward chain of command starts and stops with the superintendent. Tenant E of the Code of Ethics states, “I will recognize that authority rests with the board of education and will make no personal promises nor take any private action that may compromise the board.” By this Code of Ethics tenant, only the full board of education, not individual board members, can make decisions and make requests or give direction to the superintendent. If an individual board member has a district request, the board member should bring their request to the full board for discussion and if there is a board consensus, the “board” should make the request of the superintendent. Board members should never violate the chain of command by going around the superintendent to make requests directly to a staff member.