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Your School Board & You

What a School Board is
The local school board grew out of the town meeting, dating back more than 200 years to the original Thirteen Colonies. Times have changed, but the basic function of school boards today remains the same: to provide local citizen control over education at a point as close to the parent and child as possible. This means that the school board should represent the citizens of the school district - not just some of the citizens, but all of them. Because different citizens have different ideas about schools, this responsibility always presents a challenge.

The ultimate responsibility for education rests with the state of Illinois. The state has seen fit to delegate much of that responsibility to the local school board. School boards - although elected locally - are state agencies carrying out a state function. While school boards are granted wide latitude in governing their schools, they are subject to numerous state laws and regulations.

Perhaps the single most important job of a school board is to employ a superintendent and to hold him or her responsible for managing the schools in accordance with state law and the school board's policies. The board also should set educational goals for the schools - based on state laws and community values - and see that the superintendent and the total staff vigorously pursue those goals.

Because a school board is a governmental body, it can take action only by majority vote at a public meeting. The individual board member has no authority other than the right to cast a vote at such a meeting. A board member who attempts to speak for the total board, direct members of the staff or make other individual decisions is acting outside the law.

The school board is required to meet in public. Except at time set aside for public input, however, citizens normally do not take part in discussions. The purpose of a school board meeting is to transact the legal business of the school district through discussion and voting among the members. Because the school board needs to understand what the community thinks, most boards provide time at meetings for citizens to be heard. This is one way that boards can gauge the desires of the people they represent, even though persons who speak up at school board meetings often do not represent the entire community, or even the majority. Some boards also engage their communities through the use of surveys, citizens committees and public forums to determine what people want from the schools. Effective community relations also is an important responsibility of the superintendent and staff.

What it Means to be a School Board Member
On the surface, being a school board member may seem to be the most thankless job in the world - struggling for long hours with the most complex problems facing America and taking all the criticism when things don't go right.

But scratch the surface and you will find that school board members feel rewarded in the inner satisfaction that comes from ensuring a good education for the youth of their communities.

Yes, school boards attract a few axe carriers and crusaders who seem to ignore the educational mission of our schools. But the vast majority of board members are well aware of the awesome responsibilities they have accepted and conscientiously look out for the best interests of all pupils and all citizens.

There is no greater honor for a person of high purpose than to be selected by one's neighbors to help guide the education of their children. But it is an honor that must be earned through constant effort and a strong commitment to serving other people.

School board members in Illinois serve without pay and are prohibited by law from having a significant financial interest in any business transacted by the school district.

The term of office for most school board members is four years. Research shows that most board members are elected for twoor more terms. This is good because it takes a year or more for a person to become a knowledgeable and productive board member.

Research also shows that the average board member spends about 20 hours a month in board work. The figure is undoubtedly increasing each year because of the new problems school boards face in finance, collective bargaining, curriculum reform, civil rights and the acceleration in regulatory controls imposed by state and federal governments.

The Best School Boards
School board practices vary widely from place to place. The degree of formality required in conducting meetings, for example, may depend on whether the board meets before a large audience, a small one, or no audience at all. There are some characteristics, however, that are common to good school boards everywhere.

Good school boards know the difference between governance (which is their job) and management (which is the administration's job) and place a high priority on respecting that difference.

Good school boards make every effort to operate openly by encouraging public attendance at their meetings and keeping constituents informed of the district's progress.

Good school boards enact major policies only after all sides of the matter have been studied and all persons or groups affected have been consulted. Many boards provide for public hearings before enacting new policies.

Good boards attempt to reach decisions that all members can support.

Good boards are efficient. This means that their procedures for conducting business are appropriate to their needs and that they do not waste time on trivia.

Good boards know they are in the business of education. They talk about education, study the needs of students and society, and base their decisions on those needs.

The Best Board Members
The best school board member may be you. Board members come from all walks of life. The ability to function as one member of a seven-member governing board is not determined by sex, occupation, race, income or social standing. Effective school board members, however, are characterized by the following:

  1. The ability to work as a member of a team, including an open mind and an ability to engage in give-and-take and to arrive at a group consensus.
  2. The willingness to spend the time required to become informed and to do the homework need- ed to take part in effective school board meetings.
  3. A desire to serve children and the community and a strong belief in the values of the public schools.
  4. Respect for the needs and feelings of other people and a well-developed sense of fair play.
  5. Recognition that the school district is probably the largest business in town and that the board is responsible for seeing that the business is run by highly skilled professionals.

Effective board members often are persons who have proved successful in their particular vocations or avocations and who have demonstrated a genuine concern for community improvement.

Preparation for Service on a School Board
What do school board members need to know? A person who plans to run for the school board should acquire a basic understanding of the local district, including:

  • Purpose (what are the schools trying to accomplish?)
  • Organization (who does what?)
  • Finance (income and expenses)
  • Government (state laws and regulations and local school board policies)
  • Board procedures (how is business conducted?)

The board member also must understand the proper relationship of the school board to the state, the community and the superintendent - and the proper relationship of the individual board member to the other members of the board. Because he or she casts only one vote, the board member who hopes to bring about change must do so within the existing legal and organizational framework. Many a good idea has died because it was not properly presented to the full school board or because some part of it presented avoidable legal difficulties.

School boards establish a wide variety of policies and standards describing what the schools are expected to accomplish in such areas as curriculum, transportation, building maintenance, staff development, student services, labor relations, human rights and community relations. Many of these policies and standards are routine and the board can reasonable rely on the judgment of the superintendent and staff. Some are not so routine, however, and produce disagreements in the community or even among the staff. School board members are not experts in all these areas of policy; they must rely on the superintendent to help them. However, the board member must learn enough in all of these subjects to ask questions, evaluate the answers and vote with conviction. The place to start in preparing for school board candidacy is by attending meetings of the board. Learn how the board functions. To learn more about school problems, talk with members of the board and staff. The board candidate should make an appointment with the district superintendent to acquire factual information about the district and to discuss problems facing the board. The candidate also should read as much as possible about the nature of school board work and the laws affecting schools. Reading material is available in most school district offices. The Illinois Association of School Boards sponsors workshops for candidates prior to each election.

A candidate for an Illinois school board must be at least 18 years old, must have lived in the school district for at least one year, and must be a registered voter.

To become a school board candidate one must do the following:

  1. File a Statement of Economic Interests with the county clerk and obtain a receipt. (Statement forms are available from the county clerk.)
  2. File the following with the secretary of the board of education (or the designated representative): A nominating petition signed by at least 50 registered voters or 10 percent of the voters, whichever is less; a Statement of Candidacy; a county clerk's receipt for the Statement of Economic Interests. (Petitions and Statements of Candidacy are available from the board secretary.) These must be filed with the secretary no earlier than 78 days before the election and no later than 71 days before the election during normal office hours.
  3. If a candidate receives or expends $3,000 or more in an election campaign, reports must be filed with the county clerk. (Forms and instructions are available from the board secretary.)

A Code of Conduct for School Board Members
The Code of Conduct presented below was adopted in 1975 by the Board of Directors of the Illinois Association of School Boards and recommended to its member school boards. Today, specially printed copies of the Code hang on the walls of many school board offices where they serve as constant reminders of board responsibilities. Also, some school boards use the Code as part of their 'swearing in" ceremonies for newly elected members.

Code of Conduct
As a member of my local board of education, I shall do my utmost to represent the public interest in education by adhering to the following commitments:

  1. I shall represent all school district constituents honestly and equally and refuse to surrender my responsibilities to special interest or partisan political groups.
  2. I shall avoid any conflict of interest or the appearance of impropriety which could result from my position, and shall not use my board membership for personal gain or publicity.
  3. I shall recognize that a board member has no legal authority as an individual and that decisions can be made only by a majority vote at a board meeting.
  4. I shall take no private action that might com- promise the board or administration and shall respect the confidentiality of privileged information.
  5. I shall abide by majority decisions of the board, while retaining the right to seek changes in such decisions through ethical and constructive channels.
  6. I shall encourage and respect the free expression of opinion by my fellow board members and others who seek a hearing before the board.
  7. I shall be involved and knowledgeable about not only local educational concerns, but also about state and national issues.

In addition, I shall encourage my board of education to pursue the following goals:

  1. The development of educational programs, which meet the individual needs of every student, regardless of ability, race, sex, creed, or social standing.
  2. The development of procedures for the regular and systematic evaluation of programs, staff performance, and board operations to ensure progress toward educational and fiscal goals.
  3. The development of effective school board policies, which provide direction for the operation of the schools and delegate authority to the superintendent for their administration.
  4. The development of systematic communications, which ensure that the school board, administration, staff, students,and community are fully informed and that the staff understands the community's aspirations for its schools.
  5. The development of sound business practices, which ensure that every dollar spent produces maximum benefits.