School Boards Should Not Rubber Stamp National Agendas, Leader Says

Published April 1, 2014

Ohioan Kelly Kohls is forming a national organization that will, she says, “coach school board members on how to achieve more local control and always accelerate student achievement.”

The National School Boards Leadership Council (NSBLC) has already coached board members in several states. Kohls says school board members need an alternative to the National School Board Association (NSBA) because it “is being used to push the adults-first agenda.”

As a school board member herself, several years ago Kohls decided to create the Ohio School Board Leadership Council because the existing state association for school board members always pushed her to toe the party line instead of asking questions and making her own decisions, as voters elected her to do. Most state associations are part of NSBA and consequently share its approach.

A recent report found 95 percent of school board members receive some training, but it could not determine whether this improved their performance. It did find board members who were never educators are better informed about their district than current or former educators. School districts also perform better when board members are elected during regular November elections, it found.

Mind Meld
Existing state associations focus on “maintaining unity on school boards and singularity of thought,” said Wendy Hart, a school board member in the Alpine School District in Utah.

The training Hart received as a new board member consisted of a “series of role plays in which board members were taught how to defer all media questions to the administration.”

She described one of the role-playing activities, in which one board member voted against a cell phone policy the majority approved.

“The role play was about how to handle a constituent who also disagreed with the policy and came to you, the board member, to complain,” Hart said. “The instructions were not to agree with the constituent or even to tell the constituent you had voted against the policy. You were to be understanding, but supportive of the direction the board was going.”

‘Accelerate Local Control’
NSBLC training will not focus on maintaining unity on school boards as a priority but will instead emphasize “how to accelerate local control and not relinquish those controls to the state or local government,” Kohls said.

It will also focus on coaching school board members on how to avoid imposing new school taxes on residents.

“From the time I took office to the time I left, our expenditures per pupil dropped dramatically,” said Kohls of her experience as a school board member.

Many Ohio districts have a spending problem, she said: “In the last ten years we’ve lost 110,000 students in the state of Ohio, but the number of employees has skyrocketed.”

Ousting Union Influence
Regarding school spending generally, Stanford University Professor Terry Moe explained, “a lot of the money gets poured into things that don’t go into raising student achievement, like paying for teachers’ master’s degrees.”

Because teachers unions typically dominate school board elections, their interests “become a priority of the board, and those things come into conflict with [the needs of] children,” he said.

Regarding formation of an alternative school board organization, Moe said, “a lot of the school board members are new to their jobs, and it’s good to inform them as to what reforms are possible and what ones aren’t.”

‘Top-Notch’ Seminars
In Ohio, Kohls holds six different training events throughout the year, with an annual conference in October. When not training board members, Kohls attends conferences where she distributes literature hoping to recruit other groups to join her national organization.

Kohls’ “seminars have been top-notch with experts in the fields she’s presented,” said Sue Larimer, a school board member in Perrysburg, Ohio. The content covered in the events, she said, is “overwhelming most of the time, but always worth the time and effort.”

Kohls says her workshops and presentations empower board members instead of telling them what to do. She tries to make sure they understand that “a board policy cannot circumvent their rights and responsibilities.”


Learn more:
Kelly Khols discusses why she decided create an alternate national school boards association:

“Does School Board Leadership Matter?” Thomas B. Fordham Institute, March 2014:

Image by Jay Baker.