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BoardWise: How much can boards do? 

Winter 2013

Dear BoardWise:

Recently, a community member said to me: “I know what the board does. I see the agendas and the minutes. But what could you do?” I wasn’t sure how to answer. How much can boards do?
Not Sure of Our Power

Dear Not Sure,

You raise an excellent question, and it really has two parts: 1) What can boards do? 2) What should boards do?

The authority of boards is specified in California Education Code, and in some cases in Government Code. While there are many different codes that speak to school board authority, far too many to enumerate here, there are three that establish the general scope:  

  • Ed Code 35160: “The governing board of any school district may initiate and carry on any program, activity, or may otherwise act in any manner which is not in conflict with or inconsistent with, or preempted by, any law and which is not in conflict with the purposes for which school districts are established.”
  • Ed Code 35160.1(b): “It is the intent of the Legislature that Section 35160 be liberally construed to effect this objective.”
  • Ed Code 35161: the board “may execute any powers delegated by law to it … shall discharge any duty imposed by law upon it … may delegate to an officer or employee of the district any of those powers or duties. The governing board, however, retains ultimate responsibility over the performance of those powers or duties so delegated.”

This language makes it pretty clear that school boards in California have a great deal of authority; they’re permitted to do anything that is consistent with the purpose of schools and not prohibited by law.

Now let's address the second implied question: What should school boards do?

Presumably, the board wants to do things that improve the performance of students and the performance of the district. As California slowly recovers from the recession and provides more funding to K-12 education, the question of what to do next becomes a paramount question.

CSBA has traditionally described the board's work as focusing on five key areas: setting direction, providing structure, demonstrating support, ensuring accountability and engaging the community. Setting direction sounds simple, but in fact it can be the hardest work of all. In order to decide what to do next, the board should have in-depth discussions about:

  • The fundamental goal or purpose of the district
  • The beliefs the board has about students and the capacity of staff
  • The current status of student performance
  • The current status of district operational performance

Based on this data, the board and superintendent enter into a robust discussion about what should be changed. Prioritizing that list can require even more in-depth conversations. The question of strategy—how to achieve goals—is generally the domain of the superintendent. However, the board needs to understand strategy, and have confidence that it’s 1) based in research or best practice, and 2) appropriate for the district's current circumstance.

This is a good time to circle back to Ed Code, which specifies the requirements of being elected to a local school board. California law requires that board members be:

  • 18 years of age or older
  • A citizen of the state
  • A resident of the school district
  • A registered voter
  • Not disqualified by the constitution or laws of the state from holding a civil office.

The issues involved in setting direction alone can be complicated. Because board members are not required to be professional educators (or lawyers or accountants), effective boards rely on the professional staff, beginning with the superintendent, to bring advice and recommendations based on their professional training and experience.

Perhaps the best answer to give to community members is: “The board could do lots of things, but what should we do?”

Best of luck to you.

BoardWise is written by Christopher Maricle in CSBA's Policy and Programs Department. He has worked with school district and county office of education boards on school governance matters since 2006.