Wednesday, February 2, 2011

School Board Succession Planning

In the Port Townsend School District, two of the five board members of the school board have announced that they will not be seeking re-election this November. These now "lame duck" board members should find their own replacements now, rather than simply waiting for the fall election.

School board members serve without pay and are elected on a non-partisan basis. They are not professional politicians, and they usually have not held any prior public office. And yet, on their first day in office, each newly-elected school board member is required to take an Oath of Office, promising that they "will support the Constitution and Laws of the United States and the Constitution and Laws of the State of Washington, and that I will faithfully and impartially perform and discharge the duties of the office of ____________, according to law, to the best of my ability."

The initiation into life as a public official can be jarring for those not well-prepared. The demands of our state's "Sunshine" laws (the Public Disclosure Act, the Open Public Meetings Act, and the Public Records Act), as well as the numerous other mandates placed on board members by other state laws (RCW), administrative regulations (WAC), and the hundreds of local school district policies, can be overwhelming.

While board members are required to attend some formal training sessions when they first take office, they cannot realistically be expected to be up to speed for quite a while into their terms and, because of their inexperience, even the best-intentioned board members will often make poor decisions.

In business, the idea of training your own replacement is called "succession planning". Its intent is to ensure continuity of operations and to allow successors to hit the ground running. This principle should also be applied to non-partisan public offices.

Between now and next January, when those elected in November will take office, the two retiring board members should select and train their own replacements:

  • At first, the replacements would just attend every board meeting.
  • Later, they might be seated as ex-officio board members, just like the two student ASB representatives who sit on the board each year.
  • Finally, if it looks like the replacements will be a good fit, the retiring members might choose to resign and allow the remaining board members to formally appoint the replacements to serve out the rest of the current term, as is permitted by law and policy.

Read more about this in the American School Board Journal's July, 2010, article:

Some may be concerned that succession planning for elective office is a circumvention of the public election process; it is not. Anyone wishing to serve on a school board is able to attend all of the board meetings, file as a candidate, and make their case to the electorate. If two or more people express an interest in serving on the school board, they must all be given equal opportunity to participate, as outlined above.

Realistically, it is often difficult to find anyone who wants to serve and is willing to devote the many hours needed to do the job properly. Departing board members are to be thanked for their service to the community, and asking them the recommend their own replacements is both reasonable and in the best interest of the school district.