In the five months I’ve served on the Montgomery County Board of Education, I’ve received many questions about what the board does. And I’ve realized that many people think that board members have both more power and less power than we actually do.
Here are three examples of what we don’t do:
• Hire and fire staff. The only person the board hires and can fire is the Montgomery County Public Schools superintendent. This is an important tool to hold the school system accountable, but it’s a blunt one to be used sparingly. The board does decide whether to approve the district’s selection of principals and other senior administrators, but it is best practice to grant wide latitude to the superintendent as long as a fair and transparent process is followed.
• Select curriculum. The board certainly sets expectations. For example, the board has insisted that any curriculum be inclusive with regards to cultures and races (see Florida for a sad counter example), but the MCPS administration selects or develops the actual curriculum for board approval.
• Close schools. The superintendent has sole authority to close schools due to weather. As for pandemic-related issues, there are gray areas. For example, once the state ended the mask mandate, it was technically the superintendent’s decision to determine what MCPS should do, but the board did vote unanimously to lift the mandate after the Centers for Disease Control changed its guidance to provide cover and encouragement to the superintendent to move in this direction.
Here are some examples of what we can do:
• Set strategic vision. The board establishes goals and priorities to provide focus and direction for the district. For the next school year, we have established three priorities: improving trust and engagement with stakeholders, accelerating learning to make up for lost learning time due to the pandemic, and addressing the mental health of students and staff.
• Hold the superintendent accountable for effectively implementing the board’s vision. This may be the most challenging and least understood aspect of the board’s work. Skillful board members hold the district accountable by asking questions and requesting data in a way that pushes the system forward. Effective members also can work behind the scenes to promote effective practices. For example, I am working with administrators to establish and track indicators of success for an important shift to a research-based literacy program.
• Approve the budget and ensure fiscal responsibility. For the next school year, MCPS has a $2.9 billion operating budget. The board has used the budget in recent years to, for example, increase mental health services, raise teachers’ salaries, and expand access to pre-K.
In general, the board is responsible for policy and governance and not management of the district. Research shows that boards of effective districts maintain this distinction. This means that the board answers questions related to “why” or “what,” while the superintendent answers “how” or “when” questions.
For example, the board has recently been asking: Why did achievement among all student groups fall during the pandemic and what can we do about it? Superintendent Monifa McKnight and her team then ask their own questions: How are we going to address the fact that achievement fell—at least partly—because students had access to less (and often lower quality) instruction due to virtual learning? How are we going to offer opportunities to extend learning time, provide tutoring and enrichment, and use innovation to accelerate learning?
Answering all of these questions is critical to improving the lives of public school students in Montgomery County, but we must know who is responsible for each task to succeed.
Scott Joftus was recently appointed to the Montgomery County Board of Education to complete the term of Pat O’Neill, who died unexpectedly. He is currently running for a full four-year term. Joftus is also the founder and president of FourPoint Education Partners, which works with school boards and superintendents across the country.