School Board Governance Models and Best Practices

Ollie Thomlinson-Wells
10 min read

As the primary figures governing the local school district, each school board is entrusted with a great responsibility within their community. Implementing a school board governance model is one of the best ways boards can effectively and efficiently carry out those duties.

It is important to note that school boards are designed to be governing boards, not management boards. Although school boards provide oversight in the superintendent’s management, the school board’s goal is to serve as reflective representatives of the public’s interest.

School boards also function under various federal statutes, state laws, administrative codes and local policies. These laws and policies govern the work of the school board. It is imperative that school boards stay abreast of these policies and regulations and how they may impact the school board’s actions.


What Does Governance Mean in a School Board?

School board governance creates a framework for how district decisions are made. This includes defining expectations and creating school board roles and responsibilities, so it’s clear who is accountable for what and to whom. While this may sound simple, governance can impact everyone in the district, from the superintendent down to students and teachers, since it also defines the policies and procedures for those relationships. 

Many governance models also address the financial and people resources within a school district (and all the documentation that comes with it), creating the transparency and accountability most taxpayers expect from their district. 


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School Board Governance Models

School board governance is seen as a unique system or form of ownership rather than a way of management. The school board is more connected with the needs of its constituents than the general public, which means that the school board does not exist to run the local public school system but to govern the individuals that do.

The school board provides limits or margins of acceptability, within which the superintendent and staff are permitted autonomy. This provides the opportunity for imagination and innovation. In other words, the school board tells the superintendent how not to operate rather than how to operate. These “limits” are better known as governance. 


Four Main School Board Governance Models

There are four main school board governance models that most public school boards follow: operational, managerial, traditional and policy model. In one study, approximately two-thirds (61.32%) of school board members surveyed reported that they applied the policy model for decision making. 

Even though the policy-based model is one of the most common school board governance models, it might not be the right fit for all boards. Here’s what boards need to know about each model: 

  1. Operational Model: Operational governance focuses on decision-making. Boards that use an operational governance model will deliberate and make decisions and follow through on those decisions’ impact. The operational model structures how boards create and execute new policies and processes. 
  2. Managerial Model: Under the managerial model, the school board will split into committees, each overseeing different aspects of board activities, like budgeting or community relations. Each committee is empowered to make decisions about its area of oversight, which can ultimately streamline the decision-making process. 
  3. Traditional Model: Approximately one-third of respondents (30.66%) reported that the traditional model best described their board governance process. When using a traditional board model, the school board president oversees daily activities while the rest of the board takes on oversight and planning. This can be particularly successful if several influential school board members are on the board.
  4. Policy Model: Simply put, the policy model allows school boards to lead through policy. Boards can implement policies to express their priorities, then make decisions that align with those policies. Boards are highly productive under the policy model because they function as a unit rather than as individual members. They also create transparency between the district and the community, paving the way for real change. 

No two school boards are alike, which is why boards might opt to use one model over another. But nearly two-thirds of boards already use a school board policy governance model, which is why even more boards could benefit from learning more details and best practices for how to implement this governance model effectively. 


School Board Policy Governance Model

With the policy-based school board governance model, the board governs through policies that establish organizational goals, governance methods or processes, and management restrictions or limitations and define the board/superintendent relationship. The superintendent may have the autonomy to determine the method or process that will be implemented to achieve organizational goals or objectives. In this school board governance model, the superintendent reports to and is managed by the board.

The school board does not compete with administrators or the superintendent in managing or administrating the schools. The school board’s job is to represent the interests and goals of the community through school board policy and to oversee the superintendent, who carries out the duties associated with achieving those goals.

With the board serving in this role through the policy-based school board governance model, they take on the demanding responsibility of determining what goals should be tackled and setting the boundaries of ethics and prudence within which the system will function. Then, staff perform tasks to run the system.

Keep in mind that there is limited information involving the analysis and testing of some of these models as to their effectiveness in school board governance, particularly when it comes to the traditional and the policy school board governance models. However, implementing a school board governance model provides organization and efficiency in governing the public school system by the board.


School Board Governance Best Practices

Adopting an effective governance model can be an excellent way for a school board to create change. But on its own, a governance model may not ensure success. Think of the governance model as the engine and best practices as the fuel. School boards must put the proper practices in place to ensure that their governance model has all the material it needs to steer the board and the district towards success. 

Start with these five school board governance best practices: 

  1. Create a Shared Vision: The entire school board needs to be on the same page no matter which governance model the board uses. A shared vision can guide decisions, committees and policies, so every member of the board must be equally invested in the vision. School boards should also be comfortable winning support from the superintendent, teachers and their community. 
  2. Define Goals for the District: While a clear vision can help the board define the way forward, concrete goals help measure how the board will get there. Whether to improve student achievement or community relations, goals can help boards determine how to effectively leverage their governance model since everything they do will need to stack up to their stated goals.
  3. Develop Policies for Student Achievement: Most governance models help school boards create policies. Whether these policies come from a committee or the board, the decision-makers should always ask themselves whether or not the policy will further student success. This is the most crucial litmus test school board members (or school board trustees, for private school districts) can use when deciding whether or not a given initiative should move forward. 
  4. Build Relationships: Though governance models originate with the board, they don’t stop there. For example, the superintendent will report to the board under policy governance. For governance to be its most effective, all stakeholders must be on board, from the superintendent to the teachers. Successful boards know this and put time into building these critical relationships.
  5. Monitor the Budget: Lacking funds can stop any board in its track, regardless of its governance practices. Whether the board has a finance committee or a treasurer, it should constantly monitor the budget to ensure they have enough funds to bring about change. Depending on the governance model, this might mean preserving funds to execute policies or even pursue professional development.


Utilizing Tools for School Board Governance

1. Security

School board governance requires security and confidentiality on several issues. As the board oversees and manages the superintendent, some of the tools utilized by the board must provide a level of security to ensure that not everyone will have access to the materials. Diligent Community is school board management software. 

With Diligent Community, school boards can choose custom privacy settings for materials related to goals, proposals and superintendent evaluations. The superintendent may also customize settings so specific materials, like those the superintendent would prepare for an evaluation or a project, would only be accessible by staff members.


2. Training

Some boards have written policies regarding the expectation of the individuals serving on the board to attend school board governance or other forms of training. With Diligent Community, you can load board education materials right into the Library, and then board members can add dates for training sessions on the calendar. You can also ensure the board has access to all of the board policies’ including any regarding school board governance or education.


3. Manage Meetings

Depending on state law, school boards have specific requirements regarding posting public meeting information. With Diligent Community, school board governance through meeting management is simplified. Whether it be utilizing the electronic agenda feature, seamlessly recording meeting minutes through the software, linking and sharing meeting-related documents, or searching through previous meeting agendas or minutes by keyword, Diligent Community makes school board governance more manageable and more efficient. These documents and features may not only be accessible to board members but to the public as well.


4. Monitor and Measure Progress

As representatives of community interests, the school board must show results regarding implementing goals and projects. This is an imperative aspect of school board governance models. Leveraging a school board management software like Diligent Community, school boards can list goals for the school district and break those goals down by task. 

On the dashboard, school board members are then able to set a measurable matrix that will let you view the percentage complete toward the goal. Through this goal-tracking feature, board members can actively track goal progress with related dates to know when the goal was set and when tasks are completed. This provides board members, administrators and public constituents with awareness regarding the district’s progress.


5. Transparency

Transparency promotes trust and shared responsibility with the public, those whom the school board serves to represent and reflect their interests. By utilizing Diligent Community, board members can communicate strategic plans through a ‘share’ button with the goal-tracking feature. 

The board can make goal progress available to the public via email and/or social media. With school board governance models, the goal is always to be effective and efficient in achieving the objectives and desires of the community. Leveraging tools like Diligent Community makes sharing information with the public straightforward and more organized.


Solidify Student Success With School Board Governance

As your board works through a school board governance model, keep in mind the various federal statutes, state laws, administrative codes and local policies that will impact your board and governance. As the authority charged with governing the local school district, each school board is entrusted with significant responsibility to the community. Leveraging a tool like Diligent Community can make school board governance easier to implement and maintain.

Applying a school board governance model supports the board in effectively carrying out their duties. Without a governance model, conflict and challenges can arise in leadership; this can then shift the focus from student achievement to internal struggles and conflict.