Creating a Strong Governance Team

Transformative Board Development

Start with the end in mind.  – Stephen Covey

A shift in thinking

I started out to write about the details of onboarding new members – transactional – how to impose lots of new learning in a short period of time.  But if our goal is to grow a strong governance team together – transformation – we need to start with the end in mind.

A Strong Governance Team

Growing a strong board/superintendent partnership makes the job easier and more effective, and may well contribute to the length of tenure.  What is essential in developing a strong governance team?

Focus: a moral imperative to improve student learning, including equity

Seattle focused on “four years, four goals, student achievement.

  • We kept that focus for four years and had amazing success for student learning.
  • Eventually we aligned the strategic plan, district goals, board goals, and school goals.
  • The board even set aside $5M to support those achievement goals each year.
  • And Seattle was listed as #3 among the largest US districts in student growth.

Team: a strong team that works well together

Discussion, retreats, governance handbooks, self-evaluation.  Those are some of the tools advocated by Michael Fullan in Governance Core.  Get to know each other.  Build the relationship.  Grow trust.  In Federal Way (2020 Washington State Board of the Year), the superintendent made hundreds of community visits, “speaking greatness into being.”  She worked with the board to set clear goals.  They did classroom walkthroughs with two board members each week looking for success targets.  Dr. Tammy Campbell, superintendent, says, “I share everything with them.  We meet weekly.  We do three retreats a year and lots of PD.  Together we focus on appropriate governance, equity, and core values.”

Collaborate: Engaging diversity of opinion with thoughtfulness and respect

We live in fractured times.  Where communities once valued, respected, and followed the lead of the public officials, we now have far more divergent perspectives and, often, controversy.  Helping boards navigate these strong differences of opinion can be critical.

Lake Washington School District recently did this exceptionally well by holding a listening tour that included 15 diverse groups in their community.  They created a draft equity policy, and then circled back to those same groups to see how it could be improved.  They empowered both the board and the community.

Details:  Yes, there are still technical details to attend to.  

It takes 18 months to learn 85% of a new job.  Start early with a retreat where you can have good two-way conversations about positive governance in support of the main thing: student learning.  Be cautious about overwhelming new members with too much content.  Set a schedule to have cabinet as well as seasoned board members help build background knowledge about how the district works.  Listen for the priorities and connections they bring with them.  Find ways to meet their needs without overwhelming them.  District tours and classroom visits can also help board members become part of the team.

Spokane has a two-page policy done by board members and uses a one-page memo with hyperlinks to key district documents.  Issaquah School District has a great handbook modeled on a similar document from Bellingham Schools.

Research tells us you have to survive to be effective.  

  • Superintendents are most effective in years 5-10.
  • The average tenure for superintendents nationwide is 5-6 years.
  • Turnover in larger urban districts averages closer to three years.
  • Recent turnover has been even higher due to COVID and tensions over racial equity.

Principles to live by

To extend tenure and maximize student success, consider:

  • Respect

Pay attention to board members.  Find ways to listen first to understand, either 1:1 or through more formal retreat/workshop formats.  Say back what you heard.  Give them options that reflect their interests and be prepared sometimes to go with “Plan B” when it better fits the circumstances.

  • No surprises

Never underestimate how well connected board members may be.  They may well have grown up in the community and/or have business relationships with district employees.  Be transparent about emerging problems; far better for the board to hear about problems from you before they hear about them through other back channels.  Don’t bad-mouth your predecessor; many of those remaining in the system have sweat, blood, and tears invested in the initiatives of the previous superintendent.

  • Show me the process

Keep the board well informed. Show them the data and be transparent with your decision-making process.  For many boards and communities, the process is as important as the decision.  Help them see the connections between goals and policy and budget and outcomes.

  • Community connections

Dissatisfaction theory says when the community is unsettled (growing or shrinking), that spills over into board elections and eventually into superintendent selection and retention.  Keep seeking out the best ways to stay in touch with the many stakeholders in your community including those communities that have been historically marginalized.


Four years, four goals, student achievement.  Board effectiveness research is clear.  You get what you invest in, inspect, and work toward.  Keep your board close and keep working together on the things that matter most:  a strong governance team focused on the imperative of student learning.  Keep reminding board members they are the voice and advocate for each and every student, especially those who need the most support.


Board and Administrator

Monthly eight-page newsletter with tips for board and superintendent.  $300 for 10 copies per month.  They also sell a School Board Member’s Manual, a 150-page instruction manual that includes evaluation, planning, and finance tools.  Sold by LRP Products.

Iowa Lighthouse Study

Some of the earliest research on effective school boards.  Many, if not most, states have modeled their work on this landmark study.  Many states, along with NSBA, continue to research linkages between board standards, self-assessment, and student learning.

Board Effectiveness: Improving School Board Effectiveness

Edited by Tom Alsbury and Phil Gore, this book offers great advice.  Tom Alsbury (SPU > NW Univ) has done some of the most extensive board effectiveness research.  He consults on a balanced governance model with some similarities to Carver’s Policy Governance.  He advocates for shorter meetings focused on district goals and board effectiveness. 

Governance Core by Davis Campbell and Michael Fullan

Book brings together the Lighthouse research with the moral imperative of closing opportunity gaps.  Davis Campbell headed the California School Boards association until his retirement.  Michael Fullan brings his typical clarity to this issue.  Published in 2019 it is also the most current.

Student Outcomes Focused Governance: A Continuous Improvement Framework.

This model was developed initially by the Council of Great City Schools and further developed by the Texas Education Agency as the Lone Star Governance model.  The Education Commission of the States recognized this work with the James Bryant Conant Award in 2019.  The Lone Star Governance model distills national research on student achievement into an applicable framework for local school board action.  The framework allows school boards to evaluate their progress toward and hone their focus on improving student outcomes.

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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

To talk about growing extraordinary "high capacity" leadership for your team …
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