Know Your Role

Joel Gerring

By Joel Gerring, MASB Assistant Legal Counsel

DashBoard, June 3, 2015

The MASB Legal Team is fielding more and more questions from board members concerning the issue of district complaints that are informally brought to their attention by parents, teachers or other community members. Perhaps a community member has approached them to discuss how the superintendent allegedly mishandled a discipline situation, or a teacher has initiated a conversation regarding what they believe to be misconduct by a principal. The board member does not want to be perceived as an individual who simply ignores complaints, but also is unsure of what, if any, action they should take.

To begin, every school board member should keep in mind that their primary function is to oversee the education of students in the district. Day-to-day operations are left to the administrators and a good school board will give their administrators the freedom to do their jobs. In other words, school boards determine the direction of the district, but it is the administrators who navigate the various paths that may be taken. As such, it is not incumbent upon a board member to investigate rumors of improper conduct or otherwise “look into” any and every complaint that is brought to their attention.

When listening to a concern from an employee, parent or other community member, board members should always encourage the individual to move through the proper administrative channels. Assure them that should the situation remain unresolved through the chain of command, it will eventually be brought to the board’s attention. In the meantime, however, administrators must be given the opportunity and freedom to address the matter without interference.

As a school board member, when you’re approached by someone who has a criticism or concern regarding the district, some personal judgment will always be required. Often times, the individual simply wants to “vent” to someone who they believe will listen and take them seriously. Taking some sort of action on the matter usually isn’t necessary. Other times, however, the allegations (if true) may be serious enough that they need to be brought to the attention of the superintendent or some other appropriate administrator.

Again, it is not the board member’s role to direct an investigation or otherwise order an administrator to look into the situation; but informing an administrator that a potential issue was brought to your attention may be prudent. However, board members need to recognize the difference between “giving a heads up” to an administrator so that they are aware of a potential situation and issuing a veiled directive that the matter must be investigated and/or resolved in a particular way.

Engaging in a protracted discussion regarding these types of community encounters with an administrator may inadvertently signal to that administrator that you (or the board) have certain expectations as to how the matter will be handled. Hence, in situations where a board member believes that an administrator should be made aware of a particular community complaint/concern, it is recommended that the conversation simply and briefly cover the facts of the encounter, without much commentary. This will reduce the likelihood of an administrator feeling as though you (or the board as a whole) are expecting a particular outcome. Obviously, if the situation is not resolved at the administrative level, it will generally make its way to the board, but only in due course and only after having been taken through the proper steps of the process.

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