Inside the school board

At my first school board meeting, I felt like a pagan in church. I didn’t understand exactly what was happening, or why. Perhaps if you have attended a meeting or watched on TV, you know that feeling.

After serving on the Sonoma Valley Unified School District’s Board of Trustees for more than seven years, I’m more comfortable now and can attempt to explain some of the goings-on.

First, I’d like to address the role of the board, and next week, focus on the meetings. Please keep in mind that these are my own brief, informal answers and not complete or legal definitions.

What is the purpose of the board of trustees?

The five board members, together with the superintendent, make up the governance team for the district. The superintendent leads the district much as a CEO runs a company, with support and oversight from a board of directors.

The school board hires, advises and evaluates the superintendent, its most important task in my view. The board also approves (or may not) the recommendations of the superintendent and her staff, reviews the district’s business and sets board policy.

How is the

board chosen?

Trustees are elected for an unlimited number of four-year terms. In our district, there are five K-5 schools (kindergarten through fifth grade, and soon, we hope, all will be pre-school through fifth grade).

Surrounding each K-5 school is its “attendance area,” from which one trustee, who must reside in that area, is elected; however, each trustee is elected by all those voting in the entire school district. So each of us represents the whole district, and we are spread out geographically through all five attendance areas.

What is a

trustee’s role?

To do what’s best for our district’s students. That’s easily said, but sometimes hard to determine. We interact with parents, students, teachers, administrators and community members, sometimes discussing educational issues with them, often learning from them. We serve as a conduit of information to the superintendent, although frequently she’s way ahead of us on a given topic.

Trustees have no power of their own, by the way. We only share power as a board. After we reach a decision by majority rule, we all stand behind it.

When I first joined the board, Superintendent Barbara Young told me to be myself and follow my interests. That was good advice. Our board is wonderfully diverse in its pursuits, and that works well.

What is the board president’s role and how long do they serve?

The trustees elect a new president annually. This year Helen Marsh is president. She and the superintendent prepare the agenda for each meeting, and the president runs the meeting. She also is the official spokesperson for the board.

As various issues come up, the president is usually the trustee with whom the superintendent consults. With these added duties, the president is often the busiest trustee.

How much time does being a trustee require?

Our workload can vary considerably. We usually meet on the second Tuesday of each month, and take July off. Sometimes we hold special meetings to deal with an important issue in a timely manner.

We may barely work at all one week, then put in 10 or 20 hours, or more, the next. Our work includes studying issues for board meetings and attending other meetings in the district. And a fair number of hours are devoted to emails and phone calls.

We also try to make sure that at least one trustee attends every school-related event. Because we all have family and job responsibilities, this isn’t always possible. Trustees receive no salary, but have an opportunity to buy health insurance at group rates.

If their child has a problem at school, should parents contact a trustee?

We welcome your input. That said, I would recommend that, if you haven’t already, you should start by consulting the expert on your child’s education – their teacher. If you can’t settle the issue with the teacher, contact your child’s counselor. If the problem is still not resolved, then talk to the principal.

The district wisely encourages finding solutions at the school site where the student is best known. But the chain of command does extend up to the superintendent, and ultimately, to the board.

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Dan Gustafson is a member of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District board of trustees.