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Charter Board Partners

So You’re Joining a Board

September 20, 2017 | by Pat Talbert Smith

As part of our ongoing initiative to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in charter school governance, we asked board members of color who are participating in our efforts to write about some aspect of their experience or observations of race and diversity at play in the charter school board setting. The views expressed here are the author's own.

Pat Talbert Smith is Secretary on the board of Creative Minds International PCS, was an independent school educator and administrator for nearly 30 years, and is now an independent school consultant.

Pat Talbert SmithMy advice for a person of color joining a charter school board is the same as for ANYONE joining a charter school board: Do your homework, do it in a timely fashion, respond to board emails as quickly as possible, and don't feel intimidated. We all had to begin somewhere!

By "do your homework," I mean that the new board member should be as prepared as possible before attending the first board meeting. Read any information you can about your new school, and spend some time perusing the website. Most boards also have an "onboarding" process, during which the new board member is introduced to key members—officers usually—and important processes and documents pertaining to the work of the board are also explained and made available. This information should be reviewed as soon as possible, which is what I mean by “do it in a timely fashion.” Documents that need to be filled out, such as conflict-of-interest, background check, and board information forms, should be completed thoroughly and quickly.  Learn how and where the board stores its information, and spend some time becoming familiar with how to access important documents, such as board minutes and meeting agendas.The sooner the new board member is on-boarded, the better, as much of the additional documentation required at the beginning of one’s board service is time-sensitive to the board, but also needed immediately by the authorizer.

I strongly suggest that new board members make it a habit to "respond to board emails as quickly as possible."  We are all volunteers, so please don't add one more step—that of having to track you down—to your colleagues' list of tasks. Follow the directions exactly (review and respond, email another board member, or arrive at a particular time) and fulfill the request immediately.  When we put things off "until we have time," we often forget to go back to that one important email that needed our attention.

Finally, "don't feel intimidated" is really easier said than done. For many of us, charter schools are new. Certainly, most of us have never been involved in the inner workings of charter schools, so trying to learn everything at once seems overwhelming.  From the testing acronyms to the requirements of the authorizer, a number of us have had to spend more time than we'd care to admit researching what everyone is talking about!

The best advice I ever got as a new board member, from a current board member, was the following: "Relax!  At the first meeting, you won't have a clue as to what's going on. By the second meeting, it will start to make sense.  And by the end of the third meeting, you'll be absolutely up-to-speed!" Remember, too, to ask questions.  As in a classroom, someone else is probably feeling hazy and will also appreciate the explanation!

I do have one additional bit of advice to a person of color joining a charter school board: You may be the only one (or one of few) with your background in the room; don’t be surprised if you find yourself representing the “group." Please don't see this as an additional burden, but rather, as an opportunity. You may be the first person of your background with whom another board member has ever interacted.  Your opinions may or may not be the same. For those reasons, your words and actions will carry even greater weight. At the same time, don’t let your fellow board members delegate that all-important “broader thinking” to you—the board member of color. Help them learn to think about how their decisions affect the school, the school leader, and most importantly, the students. How fortunate to be able to work with and learn from others with a shared commitment to your charter school, and how wonderful for the children in your school. They will truly benefit from all the extras you bring to the board table!


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