When Kay Douglas ran for a spot on the Hunstville ISD school board in 1989, she didn’t know what the board did.
Now, she is the senior consultant for the Texas Association of School Boards. For the past 18 years, she has trained trustees both in conferences and in districts. She knows people don’t always understand the roles of elected officials in school districts.
Here’s a primer on the duties of a school board member, also known as a trustee, and what parents should know.
What is the most basic part of a trustee’s job?
According to the statute, the school board is responsible for governance and oversight. That means setting the goals and vision for the school district.
While the board approves policies to achieve these goals, it turns over implementation to the superintendent and district staff. The superintendent reports to the board on how these goals are progressing, and that is where the oversight role comes in.
An oversight-only role means the board has limitations in the day-to-day operations of the district. One example of this is staffing, which Douglas said is one of the biggest misconceptions about a school board.
“The community thinks, ‘Oh, you hire and fire everybody. You do everything, you call plays on the football field,’” she said. “And that is so not what they do.
“The way I explain it is, at a national forest, there’s a person up in a tower. And that person’s job is to look out over the forest and check to see if there are any fires. But when that person sees a fire, they don’t come down out of the tower and go put it out themselves.”
More information on your school board members
- Fort Worth ISD trustees are not paid.
- FWISD is a single-member district, meaning trustees are elected by the voters in the district they reside in. They must live in that district to run.
- Trustee elections are cyclical. According to board policy, the election for single-member districts 2, 3, 5, and 6 shall be held in 2019, 2023, 2027, and in four-year intervals thereafter. The election for single-member districts 1, 4, 7, 8, and 9 shall be held in 2021, 2025, 2029, and in four-year intervals thereafter.
- Texas law does not have term limits for school board.
- For more information, click here.
Serving on a school board is similar to being the person in the tower. If the board sees a program or system isn’t working properly, it talks to its only employee — the superintendent. From there, the superintendent can work with the district’s employees.
Because of these limitations, trustees should not be getting directly involved with complaints. Douglas said people can certainly reach out to their school board trustee about a problem in a classroom or campus, but the trustee is supposed to direct them to the closest person involved — such as the teacher — and if they haven’t responded, keep moving up the ladder.
If an issue reaches all the way to the superintendent and that person still is not satisfied with what’s happened, it can be presented to the board as a whole. Douglas said the board has to act as a group.
“Individual board members should not be getting involved in student concerns, parent concerns, employee concerns, unless and until it comes to the entire board,” she said. “Because they are charged with acting as one entity.”
If the issue being brought to the board is something a trustee knows a lot about — say the parent contacted the board member in their district and spent a lot of time describing the incident to them — Douglas said the trustee should recuse themselves from the issue. This is to avoid bias since they’ve already heard so much of one side of the issue.
“If somebody had an issue with your job performance, would you want them to talk to you first or your boss? What we would all say is, ‘I want them to talk to me.’ Teachers and district staff are no different. They can’t fix a problem that you don’t bring to their attention,” Douglas said. “It’s to allow staff to develop, and it is to allow community members and parents to have an appropriate way of bringing things to the attention of the district, but knowing that the board is essentially the Supreme Court of the district. It only comes to them after it’s gone through other levels.”
Douglas said another common misunderstanding is that the school board hires and fires everyone. It’s the superintendent’s job to tell the board who the superintendent wants to hire or fire and the board can approve or deny. However, the board cannot present someone else they want for a job; trustees can only approve or deny who’s presented to them.
The board’s employee
The only employee that reports to the school board is the superintendent. Currently, Fort Worth ISD is in the process of finding a new superintendent.
Douglas said the way Fort Worth ISD is conducting the search is very common. The district is using Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, a superintendent search firm, to find and recommend finalists for the role for the trustees to select.
Once a superintendent is hired, the board also is responsible for the evaluation of the district leader. Douglas said state law requires a yearly summative evaluation that looks at areas such as personnel management and student achievement.
But Douglas said she encourages the boards she trains to do more than one evaluation a year. She thinks trustees should check in more regularly and informally with the superintendent to make sure they’re on track to meet goals.
State law says the school board approves the budget, but the superintendent and staff put it together. Typically, about 80% of the budget is personnel, Douglas said, so there isn’t as much “wiggle room” as people may think.
“People always say, ‘Oh, I think there’s been waste and misuse.’ Well, it’s personnel, and there’s certain things that have to be there,” Douglas said. “But right after the board approves the budget and passes the tax rate to cover it, the superintendent and staff start working on next year’s budget.”
To do that, Douglas said, superintendents and staff should be asking what the district needs to be successful, asking principals what they need and looking at test scores and other indicators of student success.
Next year’s budget process could look different, because it’s a legislative year, so there could be changes to what schools get from the state, Douglas said. In the midst of that, district’s also have to balance funds for making up for learning loss, compensating teachers, school safety and mental health, she said.
Even once the budget is approved, trustees should get a report at least monthly that shows where the district is at spending wise, if it’s gone over allotted funds and if there need to be any budget amendments.
State law does not allow trustees to respond to people during public comments of school board meetings, even if they are asked a direct question, Douglas said.
The Open Meetings Act requires an agenda to be posted 72 hours in advance of a meeting. If people come to the meeting and engage trustees in dialogue about a subject, that can lead to discussion of items not on the agenda, Douglas explained.
“Then it’s not fair to the people who relied on the fact that your agenda said this is all you were talking about,” she said. “It is not to be rude to the people who are there, it is not to hide anything, it is simply to adhere to the state law that says the public has a right to know what you’re talking about and what you’re not talking about.”
If Douglas could clear one thing up for district residents on their school board, it’s that it all comes down to student achievement.
“It’s hard sometimes to realize that what’s best for students isn’t necessarily what’s best for parents, or what’s best for students isn’t necessarily what’s best for staff and teachers,” Douglas said. “I know Fort Worth has single-member districts, and in that instance, only a certain segment of the population votes for you. But all of those kids are your kids. You’re making decisions for all of them. It’s hard for people to understand that what is good for my child may not be what’s best for all of the kids in the district. And as a board member, I have to be focused on all of those kids’ needs.”
Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.