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School Board Onboarding in 3 Simple Steps

A great school board works hand-in-hand with executive leadership to fulfill the mission and vision of the school district. Whether incumbent or newly elected, you want school board members who are engaged, inspired and ready to work with your team. Don’t overlook school board onboarding.

Here are three simple ways to onboard a new school board member — including those who ran on a platform of change — to position your district for success. 

1. Create an onboarding binder

2. Emphasize teamwork

3. Assign mentors

Create an Onboarding Binder

Even if a candidate received the same information during the election process, it’s important to provide a single, take-home source of information. So, take a few extra minutes to personalize the school board onboarding binder for the biggest payoff in goodwill. Each orientation binder should include, at a minimum:

    • A personalized welcome letter expressing excitement at their upcoming service, and a reminder of your why: the kids. Highlight your mission, vision, and values.
    • A list of current board members, their contact information, and if possible, a short bio on each. Knowing your colleagues beyond the board table is a great way to start bridging any gaps.
    • Leadership organizational chart that includes key district staff members.
    • List of board committees and appointments the purpose or charge of each committee, along with the people currently assigned to each.
    • A calendar of upcoming meetings and any important dates they should know.
    • Any must-know legal information board members need, including how open meeting laws work and other state-specific laws that affect board meetings. Keep it easy to digest.
    • The district communications plan, as it relates to school boards. Some school boards love to use social media and be in the public eye either as a unit or as individuals. Others prefer to work more quietly in the background. Ask your district communications director to orient the new board member to district traditions and expectations for communication. This is a great time to discuss transparency vs. privacy laws.
    • A list of school board policies, and where to find them. They should be easy to access and easy to search. 
    • An explanation of board roles. This varies significantly from district to district, and your new members may have gaps in understanding. Clearly delineate governance vs. administrative roles, and proactively help your new board members understand the difference. A lack of role clarity for board members and district administrators will drastically reduce effective collaboration and time management. Did that set off any alarm bells in your head? If so, onboarding is your opportunity to engage all board members in the discussion about best practices, roles and activities.  

Emphasize Teamwork

A board works best when there is mutual respect and trust. Your community may have elected a new board member who ran on a platform of change. This can make other board members defensive, or lead to an unproductive, antagonistic dynamic. Nevertheless, respect and trust are built by working with someone, not just tolerating them. Onboarding a school board member is the best way to head off potential conflict or division. Begin by asking yourself if the potential division is based on a perception problem — or a true difference in values?

Example: Perception

Your new school board member believes the transportation system is broken and ran on a campaign of change. The superintendent and key stakeholders can meet with the new board member to provide history, funding and meeting links to better understand the complexity of transportation issues. The goal of the meeting is not to change opinions, but rather, to bring people to the table with a wide variety of informed perspectives. 

Example: Value Differences

Your new school board member disagrees with the district’s approach to curriculum. Their campaign seems directly counter to some of the district’s mission and values. Is it possible to bridge that gap? We think so. This may open some difficult conversations, but sometimes, the language we use is the source of frustration. Invite your new school board member to a candid conversation; seek to understand their goals and priorities. What values do they really care about? Look for an opportunity where you might articulate “I believe we want the same thing.” It may be as simple as “We both want our schools to provide a great education for kids.” It’s possible the chasm between you is much smaller than you initially thought. Actively listening to understand one another is the first step in building the respect and trust needed to work together. 

At the end of the day, your board casts votes together, and each board member is only a fraction of the vote. Any time a board member consistently votes no, when everyone else votes yes, don’t think of them as your ‘problem’ board member. Instead, remember they represent a real portion of your community — a population your schools serve.

Assign Onboarding Mentors

We all feel a little off-kilter when we start a new job, but a friendly face ready to answer any question goes a long way. A mentor assigned to your new school board members can ease the beginning of their first year. Options for mentors might include an experienced school board member, clerk of the board or executive assistant to the superintendent. Encourage your new board member to ask any question, from “what does this acronym mean?” to “how exactly does special education funding work?” The mentor doesn’t need to know the answer to all the questions — simply the person or place where a new board member might find the answer.

School districts value continuous learning and continuous improvement in students, and that should be no difference for leadership and board work. If you have a strong, effective board there are always ways to improve and move forward together. If your board practices could use a little fine-tuning, onboarding new school board members is the time to take out all your tools and sharpen them.


Published on: November 2, 2021