Dr. Melissa Thompson: How to Onboard Board Members
In an era of contentious board meetings and board elections, Dr. Melissa Thompson, former superintendent of Swallow School District, shows a smart, common-sense approach to helping school boards succeed with onboarding.
In an era of contentious board meetings and board elections, Dr. Melissa Thompson, former superintendent of Swallow School District, shows a smart, common-sense approach to helping school boards succeed with onboarding.
Dr. Melissa Thompson explores how she built an onboarding program for school board members that prepares potential board members to serve. Her work and onboarding system also gives board members-elect the information, context, and tools necessary to start their positions well. In this practical episode, superintendents and school board presidents will learn how to truly develop their board members to benefit their entire school community.
Dr. Melissa Thompson is the former superintendent of Swallow School District in Wisconsin where she served for 12 years. Dr. Melissa Thompson now serves as the Director of Education Strategy at PRA (Plunkett Raysich Architects) following 25 years in the field of education.
A twelve-year veteran of the superintendency, during Dr. Thompson’s tenure at the Swallow School District accolades from the Wisconsin Department of Instruction included being the Top Scoring District on state report cards (2020-21), the top score in the state for eight-grade mathematics achievement (2018-19), and being one of eight schools statewide to earn recognition as both a High Progress and High Achieving Title I School (2014-15) along with School Health and three Promising Practices Character Education awards. The district was also named a National Blue Ribbon School in the Closing the Gaps category (2016) by the U.S. Department of Education.
During this same period, significant Long Range Planning efforts coupling Strategic Planning and Master Planning efforts lead to the passage of an $8.3M referendum in 2018 with all project facets completed on time and under budget. Communications campaigns and community engagement during the pre-referendum and design processes earned state and national recognition with ongoing School Board workshops and community engagement around the district’s finances and nexus with school funding in Wisconsin.
Dr. Thompson is a frequent presenter at conferences, facilitator of strategic planning efforts for school districts and organizations, mentor to aspiring and new administrators, search consultant for districts seeking new superintendents, and member and past President of the Hartland-Lake Country Rotary Club where she was also named Rotarian of the Year.
Intro Quote Dr. Melissa Thompson (Guest): You as the superintendent. You are the board's employee. And so that's obviously a two way street in terms of they need to value you and your work as a superintendent, but you also need to work hard at having those relationships with each and every school board member. And I feel like that needs to happen on an equal basis. You have to work hard at the relationship.
Tyler Vawser (Host): I'm Tyler Vawser, part of the SchoolCEO team. Here at Apptegy, we publish original perspectives and research that helps school leaders build a strong identity for their schools. Along the way, we have conversations with superintendents and other K-12 leaders, marketing experts, and more to help you brand and market your schools in a highly competitive environment. Published quarterly in print and online, SchoolCEO is the only magazine focused on marketing in K-12 public education. And this is SchoolCEO Conversations Marketing for School Leaders. When we think about school boards in the year 2023, we're thinking about what's going wrong. There's been a lot of news about school boards across the country and what's not going right, but in this episode, we're actually going to talk about what can go right and how to make that possible.
I speak with Dr. Melissa Thompson, a former superintendent at Swallow School District, about her approach, which is both smart and common sense to helping your school board succeed, even when and especially if you have turnover and you're adding new board members. I heard Dr. Thompson speak at the Wazda Conference in Wisconsin back in April, and I took pages and pages of notes. I reached out to her after and asked her to speak on this podcast because her advice is something I think you can act on right away and I found to be extremely practical. The question we discuss here is how can you build a strong relationship with potential board members and new board members faster so that you can create a better working relationship early? In this episode, you and your school board presidents are going to learn how to truly develop board members that can benefit the entire school community.
Let's join the conversation. Well, Dr. Melissa Thompson, thanks so much for joining SchoolCEO Conversations.
Dr. Melissa Thompson (Guest): It is my pleasure to be here with you today. Thank you so much.
Tyler Vawser (Host): Very good. Well, I heard you speak in Madison, Wisconsin, a few months ago and really enjoyed what you had to say about onboarding new board members. And I reached out to you to say I loved your presentation. And would you be willing to talk about that with superintendents over a podcast and hopefully teach a lot of superintendents about the great things that you've been doing? So I'm excited that you said yes to that.
Dr. Melissa Thompson (Guest): Oh, thank you. Yeah, I look forward to this conversation, and I always appreciate those kinds of conferences, too, because I learned so much just from questions of audience members and certainly by going to the presentations of my peers as well.
Tyler Vawser: Wonderful. Do you want to start just by telling us about your background in education and then we'll jump into some questions about onboarding board members?
Dr. Melissa Thompson: Absolutely. So I became a teacher 25 years ago, actually, and began my career as a high school social studies teacher. And my passion was always in the areas of curriculum and instruction, as well as my undergraduate area, which was in psychology. And specifically I studied sports psychology, which allowed me to really understand a lot more about motivation and relationships and kind of overall performance. So as I got a little further in my teaching career, it seemed just perfect for me to put those passions together and become an administrator so that I could work a little bit on a larger scale than I was as a classroom teacher and see what I could do to help students ultimately have the best K-12 experience they possibly could. So I began my first administrative role. I was an athletic director and assistant principal at Waukesha South High School in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and then from there became the principal at Waukesha West High School. And since then, for the last twelve years, I have been serving at Swallow School as the superintendent. And now my newest role is as the director of Education Strategy for Plunkett Raceage Architects.
Tyler Vawser: Well, let's jump into talking about board members. Obviously, there's been a lot of news about school boards, especially in the last few years, but I think one thing that stood out to me in your presentation was that you started talking about onboarding new board members before they're even elected. And so I'm curious what you meant by that. And what does that actually look like to onboard someone before they've even been elected to their position?
Dr. Melissa Thompson: Sure. I can imagine how that could, at first blush, sound confusing. I would tell you twelve years into this role, however, I think that is the work of the superintendent is because you have to constantly be interacting with and cultivating a sense of pride in your school district. And so when we talk about onboarding being ongoing and something that happens before somebody even contemplates putting their name on a ballot, that's what we're talking about. It is building that goodwill, building that sense of ownership in the district, and really getting to know all the stakeholders in your school district on an ongoing basis so that you do have people who would consider serving on the school board.
And while that's not the sole job of the superintendent, that also is, of course, a school board member position. And just I think every great school district creates that level of inspiration for service because of the teaching and learning experience their children are having and just the totality of the pride of being a part of a district. I do think that that is something that superintendents have to have top of mind every single day that they come to work.
So what we mean by that is that you may have somebody that you give a tour. Now, not all superintendents are in schools where they might be giving prospective family tours, but let's pretend that you are, but think about those prospective family tours. We are all communicating on a day to day basis through personal interactions that might be giving somebody a school tour who's contemplating, do I pick your school district versus a different one? And we communicate not just about the excellence in our programs and why we're excited about things that we're doing that are really great for kids, but we also communicate by what we publish, what's on our website? Where is that placed on our website? What is the important information we push out to families all the time?
What are those memos, what are those vestiges of what has been important as evidenced by communication that has happened both in print and interpersonally and of course their social media as well. So we feel like always keeping those pieces in mind with that mindset, having the informal as well as the formal communications plans, having ways that constituents can engage with the schools, through strategic planning efforts, through shared visioning and frankly, just opening your doors to your school so that people can come in, they can experience the concerts, the family arts nights, the literacy weeks and the myriad of activities that you could possibly have. The sporting events that celebrate and show exactly what your district is about on a day to day basis.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I love it. I think a lot of times the stereotype of a board member is someone that found something wrong and now wants to create a platform around it. But I think what you're describing is building a group of advocates that see everything that's going right and wants to keep that going.
Dr. Melissa Thompson: You said it perfectly. I think that is exactly it. And some of the things when I first began here at Swallow, we knew that we had some upcoming work that needed to be done to our building and grounds, for instance. And one of the biggest things there was a lot of change. I started in July of 2011 and there had been a lot of change in public schools in the spring of 2011 and really through the 2011-12 school year.
It was really important with new leadership and new people being elected onto the school board and new staff, that we found ways that again, built that trust. And you're only trustworthy if people have that experience with you. And so it's doing what you say day in and day out and just showing over that course of time. So one of the examples of things that, after doing a lot of brainstorming and just really getting to know the people in the district, we put in place something that we call community conversations. And we have been doing this now in our district for ten years and it's excellent.
It is a part of our continuous improvement program where every other year our families open their homes. Now in our case, we're very subdivision based and then we have some other areas of our district that might not be. And so we work with families in different subdivisions to host their neighbors. So every other year, work with the school board as part of our ongoing strategic planning to come up with three big questions. Ours have typically focused around curriculum and programming. In other words, for instance, how are we doing and what do you see as maybe next steps for us in this area? Then we would ask the same or a similar question around services that the district provides.
So the third question, depending upon how the first two come together, usually is something around okay, if we want these things with curriculum and programming or we want these services or we want to expand in these directions, is the building going to support that? How are we going to pay for it? What are the resources needed and how are we going to secure those resources or shift resources around in order to make those things. So I think what's really essential about that is we're brainstorming, it's future focused, it's taking in feedback and acknowledging that we're not perfect.
And we are typically among the very top scoring school districts in the entire state of Wisconsin on measures that you can find publicly, whether that is from niche.com or whether that is through the state report card system. But in addition to that, it really comes down to saying, look, we may be really good, but that doesn't give us an opportunity to sit on our laurels and say, jeez, we've arrived. Because every single day we get students coming through our doors who may have had an experience in their prior 24 hours, which changes them forever. Or for the better, too. Or learned something that now pushes them to a place where we have to think differently about how it is we're going to reach and extend for students and grow each and every one of them every day.
So this community conversation series has really been the springboard for us. It has led to great partnerships where not only do we provide, we gain a lot of information. We typically begin those with a 15 minutes state of the state with the school board partnering with me to go into these homes. And we always host a couple here at school too. And we just talk about what's going really well from a board and administration standpoint and what are some opportunities for growth that we see or some real challenges we know we're going to face.
And I think that just honest, open dialogue really paves the way for coming up with honest and forthright solutions that people can get behind. But also a sense of we're not trying to sugarcoat stuff that shouldn't be sugarcoated. We're really here trying to, in tandem, work with people in our community to understand what's going on and to really leverage the expertise of an entire community, not just me as superintendent, not just our team, our leadership team. Not just our staff, not just board members, but really putting together the strength of 1200 different households that can help us get to whatever's next for the benefit of our kids.
Tyler Vawser: I like that you're getting them to think about the question, not just the answer that you proposed, right, that you're really involving them in that process, which is so smart.
Tyler Vawser: Let's talk about board elections. How were you involved as superintendent in that process? Because you've talked in your presentation, you talked about some very practical things around the website and getting prospective board members that are going out for the election to be more visible to the community so that they know who they're voting for.
Dr. Melissa Thompson: I would suggest that in the month of October and November, which are very busy months anyway, we understand that you're coming through that fall sports season. You're coming through the time when you're getting all your data to set your tax levy, at least in Wisconsin, that's how it works. But at the same time, that is a great opportunity when there's usually a lot of energy and positive energy and hopefulness at the beginning of a school year, I find that that's a really positive time to host potential school board candidate just open houses.
I would suggest superintendents aren't reaching out to individuals in the community, but that it is more of an open call saying, have you considered running for the school board where there will be one or two seats or however many seats that is on the ballot, but advertising that and then putting with that timelines? Because what I think superintendents need to be mindful of is we shouldn't be out there telling individuals where it would be seen as we're supporting a specific candidate or providing information that other people could deem as somehow giving one person or party an advantage in that kind of situation. But what I would say is have an open session or a couple of these open houses. They're open to anybody who wants to come. Showcase last year's candidate packet. We'll talk more about the candidate packet in just a minute. But showcase that.
Talk about upcoming deadlines and due dates. Talk about the fact that right now you're saying there are two seats open and you're not telling whether or not people are rerunning because the school board members, at least in Wisconsin, have a timeline during which they can express whether or not they are re seeking their current position or their current seat or not. And in Wisconsin, that doesn't happen until the end of December. And so that's why you're just saying two seats are up for election or one seat's up for election or whatever that is. Talk about those timelines, give tours of your school as a part of that. Really being frank and descriptive though, because through the lens of what a board member would need to know, not a prospective parent at that point, but what is it that a board member might need to know? So you're giving maybe some specific examples of things that are on your capital improvement list. As you walk around, you're talking about maybe projects you've just completed.
You're pointing out things with teaching and learning that may have been process improvements or building improvements and how that has changed student data or assessment data that you can get at, and maybe some areas where that hasn't come to fruition. And you're wondering why, and you're working on that and looking at that. Because I think that's the level of transparency that shows. Again, as a school board, your primary role is around budgeting, policy development, that piece of things. It isn't around the day to day operations of a school district. So we want to make sure that everything that we're doing to interact with these potential candidates is at the level where the board governance should rest.
Tyler Vawser: A follow up question to that is what is the role of a board member? And I think one of the advantages of the onboarding that you do is that you're setting those expectations from the very beginning. So how do you help board members understand their role and your role as a superintendent?
Dr. Melissa Thompson: I do that in a few different ways. I think we have found that going through and talking, we do the onboarding process once school board members have submitted paperwork. So in December, we create these packets that if somebody says they're going to run for office or they're interested in getting the paperwork to turn in, we've created folders. They have paper copies of the district strategic plan. They have a list of district priorities, etc.
Then as we get into January, February, March, and then right before the election, we have monthly meetings, and we talk about that. So we structure those meetings around each month beginning in January. Once somebody has declared that they are running for school board, we provide all of the board packet, with the exception of any closed session materials, to everybody running for school board. And so they start to get that in depth look at what are the issues facing the district. Here's what the board is looking at. And then we have those different monthly meetings, and we're going in depth at the beginning of the meeting, as always, and we meet with all the candidates at the exact same time.
We set collective times that the group can meet with us administratively. And then we ask, what are your questions from the last school board meeting? What could we help you with to just understand better? Then we go into each of these four different topics on a month to month basis. So I think that is how you help school board members to understand this is what your role is. These are the things that as a board, you're dealing with. We're happy to answer other ancillary questions you may have, but these are the things that are really in the board's bucket and these are the things that are really in the administration's bucket. And typically the board bucket is around developing policy and kind of like the legislative branch, right? And then you've an executive and then you've got the administrators who are there to carry out the day to day activities based upon what the policies say.
Tyler Vawser: Very good. And so, just to be clear, about half of these monthly meetings are happening before they're elected to anyone that's interested, and the other two or three are happening after election for those that only were elected into the position. Correct.
Dr. Melissa Thompson: So how we structure it is we try to have it so that on an ongoing basis we have the bigger picture district things happening right independent of school board election cycles, which would be community conversations. It would be taking community conversations and transitioning that into the formal long range plan. Some other things we do with our education foundation around then perhaps even funding priorities, that we develop a two year collaborative investment plan that happens kind of bigger picture from a school board specific.
And what would it be like to be on the school board in October and November? December is really kind of a quiet period for us where we've put the notices out there of there's going to be an election and we project these are the seats available. And then from there, once people declare in January, we have three different meetings where we are going in depth each one each month with all superintendent or excuse me, each month for three months, January, February and March, we go in depth in those different areas, the finance and operations, teaching and learning, and then employee relations.
We save policy for those special souls that get elected to the school board. And so the three other meetings happen before the election. Once the election has happened, then those people who will become sworn to the school board and have been elected, then we sit down and we do a very deep dive into board policies that are especially important. They're all important for a board member to be familiar with. However, there are some that are extremely important for board members right when they begin their post to be aware of.
Tyler Vawser: Dr. Thompson board relations, as you know, have become increasingly contentious nationwide. How do you think districts can avoid that contention and can better onboarding help?
Dr. Melissa Thompson: I do think better onboarding can help, and I also think working superintendents and the board president in particular need to have a very functional, professional relationship and that will help to set the tone for the work of the board. It will help to set the tone for the culture in the district, even when we disagree, how can we still work together? And so I do think that superintendents need to really work hard with board presidents and their legal counsel. I think that is something too, where we certainly have used the district's legal counsel to come in and do an onboarding workshop with school board members.
So my job as a superintendent, I felt all along was to really make sure that we were bringing onboarding school board members around the nuts and bolts of our district, around how we have implemented the policies of the board and things that were issues that board members needed to be familiar with. Right. The actual roles and responsibilities of school board members, while rooted in state statute, are not overly explicit.
When you really get into how do I do this right? When I'm sitting there at that first meeting and maybe there is something that's a hot topic that comes up at Citizens Forum and you want to talk back, but you really can't because that's how it's not posted on the agenda. So how do I handle that? Those are the kinds of things that I feel are best dealt with through a workshop that the district's legal counsel can collaborate with the board president. Certainly you can collaborate as a superintendent on setting that agenda and working through those things. But I think that's really a great opportunity to partner with your legal counsel and have that conversation. And during that, where you're talking about roles and responsibilities, I think that is the absolute perfect place, just as most of us do with our own teams, whether that's in businesses or in schools.
You sit down and you talk about how are we going to all work together? And that is where you're setting clear boundaries. You're saying, these are the non negotiables. This is how we're going to work with each other, this is how we're going to treat each other, and this is what I need to do my job the best. And I think that's where you have that board's attorney who can help to facilitate that conversation and talk about what does it look like? Not just write down three, four, five things that the board establishes as its operating principles internally as a board, but then how are we going to hold each other accountable for those?
And I think that not all that can happen in one session. Sometimes that's a two, three, four part session that needs to happen an hour to an hour and a half at a pop because it's a lot for anybody to take in and think about. And then you might have some afterthoughts, right, because you've got more of a chance to reflect. But I think taking all those things together and building that into your future agendas. So I think that would be an opportunity to, again, get back to the business of what are we here for?
How do you set up your board agenda so that perhaps one of the earliest things that happens on every board agenda is a review of what are the board's operating principles, and then at the end of the meeting, to maybe have a review that goes back and assesses, how did we do? And then are there key messages that need to go out to the community? I know that here at Swallow when I was a superintendent, we have done so much of that with our committee work. We always tried to set up, whether those were board subcommittees or even our internal staff development or other types of committees, a starting of what are our shared commitments.
We set those at the first meeting, we revisit them at every meeting. Are there some that should be changed? And we remind ourselves of those at the beginning of each meeting. And then we talk about key messages because one of the other tricky parts of board governance is your meeting minutes are often not approved and therefore cannot be published for a period of several weeks. And so there is information that needs to get out in the interim, even if it's not the official board minutes. So coming up with ways to make sure, because this goes back to that trust and transparency with the public going back to figuring out how are we going to do some of those things, and is that one of our top priorities that we are all committed to? And if we are, then what is that message and how are we all going to have the same message even if we didn't all vote the same way?
Tyler Vawser: That's really interesting. In your presentation, I believe you said something like boards are a unit. And while there's obviously debate in board meetings, especially closed sessions, but boards are still representing a district and to the community in those conversations, the community sees them as one whole board, right? Can you talk a little bit about that and how you frame that for incoming board members so that they understand their role not just as a board member but as part of a larger unit?
Dr. Melissa Thompson: I think that doesn't just come from the superintendent. So certainly we through the onboarding process talk know, and it's written in board policy as well, and statute in the state of Wisconsin, I'm sure it is in most states that individual board members do not possess authority to institute, change policy, etc. That only comes through the majority vote of the school board on most matters. There are a few exceptions to that where perhaps a tiebreaker vote if the board president or other circumstances are called for. And so that is something that is a part of the onboarding process, but I think really comes from that conversation that's had either with the board having its own workshop, or it comes from just about our operating principles, or it comes from that conversation that happens with the board's attorney.
Tyler Vawser: And as we were talking about legal matters, I remember from the presentation again that you talked about a really practical idea around FOIA requests and phone and text usage. Do you mind telling the audience about that?
Dr. Melissa Thompson: Sure. Many of my former colleagues as superintendents have experienced a significant uptick in the number of freedom of information requests. As is well known in Wisconsin, sometimes they're public records requests. They get framed in different parts of the statute for the requests. Our district was no exception to that. And one of the things that we realized early on in the types of requests we were getting a few years ago is that board members, while by statute, are required to maintain their own records and theoretically can use their own personal phones for board business—there's no reason they can't.
We discovered that it really increases the delay in getting information back to the district. And it's very hard for board members, too, to go through, especially in smaller districts like ours, to go through and try to segregate out. Was that conversation I had about picking Susie and Sammy up, does that qualify as an open record? Because somebody's wanting to see the communication I had with “so and so's” parents, it really had nothing to do with it. It's because we're on the swim team together, we're on the volleyball team together, or we do piano or dance or something.
So we got to a place where we decided that it was well worth the investment. Because school districts typically can access state contracts for cell service phones, et cetera, we decided it was really worth it for the amount of money we were spending, both for district time that might not be reimbursable by the way open records charging can happen and locating costs. And the amount of money we were spending on attorneys who had to help sift through some of those trickier pieces on personal cell phones of school boards.
We decided that unilaterally, having a board phone as distinctly separate from a personal cell phone, that people might be choosing to have made sense. That way they could turn over their board phone, it could be quickly searched. It was solely for board business. There shouldn't be any concern about private things that might be a part of those records. And that's where working with our board members then to help them, they're not always easy conversations when your neighbor or friend calls and has a concern, but just to redirect that and say, “That's great, I'd love to talk to you about that, but can you please call me back at this number? Right now? I am happy to talk to you, but I need you to use the school board phone for that purpose.” And so helping people, not just to have a device that could be used would have voicemail records, all of the different types of records that are required, that we can provide transcripts of things, but also then maybe some tips and tricks for how to have some of those really hard conversations as they come up.
Tyler Vawser: Did you see board members accept that? Did that seem to make sense to them? And even though carrying around two phones may not be the most convenient, did they see the overall larger picture?
Dr. Melissa Thompson: Yes. And in fact, this was a collaborative approach, how do we do this better for all parties involved? Because it was very challenging for school board members. With the volume of requests that were coming in and the types of requests that were coming in, it was very challenging. As a school board member right, you don't have to be tethered to your phone 24/7, but I think figuring out as individuals how they're going to manage having two devices or maybe more. Because we have some people who have three devices because they already have one for themselves, one for their work, and then a school board one. But figuring out how they want to manage that and be responsive to their constituents.
Tyler Vawser: What do you think is the most important thing superintendents can do to foster a pleasant and a productive experience for their board members?
Dr. Melissa Thompson: I really believe that that comes down to that onboarding process and being completely transparent and, with that, is being approachable. I mean, as the superintendent, you are the board's employee, and so that's obviously a two way street in terms of they need to value you and your work as a superintendent. But you also need to work hard at having those relationships with each and every school board member. And I feel like that needs to happen on an equal basis.
You have to work hard at the relationship. In my case, I had five school board members on my board at all times. You have to work hard at the relationship with all five people to the extent that that's possible, and it is possible over time. Not everybody wants to have any kind of relationship beyond just give me my packet and call me if there's an emergency. But meeting, especially as a part of that onboarding process in April, after the election at Swallow, we always sat down and talked about what are your preferences, “when do you want or expect a phone call from me?”
“Here's what I'm thinking. This is how it's worked well in the past, or this is kind of the norm on the board right now, but what is important to you and what are your needs, and are they different maybe now than you feel like they might be in three or six months? And how do you want to work through that?”
Because I do think it's our job to remember most of the people who run for and are elected to school boards, or many of them anyways, they don't have a background in K-12 education. They're looking to us as the experts to figure out what they need to know to set effective policy to make good decisions and help us collaboratively with the governance of the school district.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's really good. We've talked a lot about onboarding here, but what about offboarding? How do you maintain relationships with board members after they're leaving or they know they're going to be leaving? What approaches have you found work best for that?
Dr. Melissa Thompson: I think it's honoring the service that people have provided to your district because whether you serve one term, two terms, ten terms, people have given a lot, people have given a lot of thought. First of all, they've taken a risk by putting their name on a ballot. And that is huge. There are many, many people that talk about what we all should do, what we all could do, but it's a whole nother level when you are willing to serve your community and actually take the effort and energy to run a campaign for a school board seat. So I think it's recognizing that whether you individually agreed with everything the school board member did, said, etc, is really irrelevant because you need to thank them and express gratitude for the service that they did provide. They were elected by constituents in the community and that counts for something. So I think it is just celebrating and recognizing their service. And in my case, I've always tried my best to have positive relationships with every single board member. And so it's a fun reunion when we might bump into each other in the parking lot or in the grocery store or wherever that might be.
Tyler Vawser: So a couple of questions that weren't on the list, but they're nothing crazy. So, one, if I'm a superintendent and I'm listening to this, I would say this sounds great, but I'm pretty busy as it is. Board members and board meetings already feel like they take up an enormous amount of my time and my headspace. So how do I find the time to build an onboarding program and to think about community conversations and all of the things that you've been mentioning here? Because it sounds great, but what's some practical advice for how to make that happen with only 24 hours in a day?
Dr. Melissa Thompson: I see this very much as an investment that will pay dividends over the course of time. It doesn't mean that you go through something in January when somebody has just submitted their papers to be on the ballot. In our case, that's usually around understanding finance and operations and anybody in Wisconsin and perhaps most states, school finance is like a two year degree program at a master's level. And to be a business manager, it's not something you can do in a two hour session and have somebody fully, fully fully grasp all the detail.
But what it is doing is providing a firm enough foundation that people get a sense of where the district is positioned and what are some real pressing issues, either good, bad or otherwise, that are facing the district. So my answer, I completely understand. I am the parent of four young children and doing this job for twelve years. I really do understand and empathize with the sense that this is a 24/7 job. I would say giving yourself a half day to sit down with your administrative team, perhaps your board president or a former board member, and scripting out what could a month by month onboarding look like and what are those pieces that this onboarding is as an ongoing concept could look like for your district.
You don't have to recreate the wheel. A lot of these presentations and a lot of this information we're providing to board candidates is information that we have already put together. It's putting it in front of people who even if you did it two years ago and that was like when you changed your curriculum and programmatic review process, you put it together, guess what? They don't know that they might have just moved to the district two weeks ago. They have no idea. And so treat your board members as if this is their first time going through it, even if it's your 50th, and figure out what are those quintessential pieces of information that if they have just a little bit of background. It's going to prepare them for what's going to be on the docket at the end of April. The end of May? Those first couple of months when it's so busy and they're trying to drink from a fire hose. And so are you.
Tyler Vawser: Very good answer. I love it. One of the last questions I have for you is what's the hardest thing for board members to understand about the role of a superintendent?
Dr. Melissa Thompson: The superintendent should take every board candidate and ultimately every board member from wherever they are to wherever they need to go to be their best board self. And that sounds very idealistic, but in reality, board members come from all different backgrounds. And that is a wonderful thing for a school district because most of us who are administrators have come through the ranks of being teachers, being some type of principal, curriculum coordinator, special education director, business person. And then we've ended up becoming superintendents. And our experience may be wonderful in the realm of teaching and learning. We may have developed strong skill sets in human resources, in what we need to know around finance and operations, the way school finance works in our states, in our localities.
But there is a distinct difference because as a board member or as a superintendent, you're trying to tap into that expertise that your board members bring. For instance, you may have a board member who's got a strong background in healthcare or healthcare management. Those are really important people to have who can speak to how you could maybe improve the benefit offerings you have for your employees that we as the school came through the school system side of the equation, wouldn't have. And I think that is the power, again, that synergy that needs to exist and the power of the purpose of a school board and what they bring to the table, representing the community and having that varied experience that can come together with the educational and educator side of the equation. And that's when the best outcomes happen for school districts and ultimately children.
Tyler Vawser: I really like that. I think sometimes we imagine there's this ideal board member and if everybody could be like that person, that would be so much easier. That might be true, but you lose those other perspectives and the expertise, right? No one is an expert on everything, and that is the purpose of getting a group of leaders together to have those different perspectives. And sometimes those perspectives are not as wanted, but that nudge is actually important and helps the rest of the group and the unit, as we talked about, really think through them.
Tyler Vawser: Thank you so much for joining SchoolCEO Conversations. I really enjoyed it.
Dr. Melissa Thompson: Thank you. It has been an absolute pleasure.
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