Welcome to the Board!
A smart and practical way to get involved
Last month, in a column titled “Blow the Battle Horn!” I encouraged readers to get involved in the culture war and push back against the rule of “experts”. I wrote “You can give in to ‘the experts’ or you can exercise your civic duty to fight for the liberties defined in our constitution. This is a war of ideas, of words, of conversations, of education, of culture.”
In response to this article, one of my readers asked a great question: “How? So many of us want to DO something but what? ... What would be the most efficacious use of time and resources in your opinion?”
Most of us have no stomach for politics and we don’t want to run for office. How can we serve our community? We can become a member of a government board. Serving on a board is a way to give back to your community, develop new skills, and magnify your influence. Remember, “all politics is local”. When you serve on a board, you are also influencing local politics and culture.
What is a board?
Boards are the invisible engine that holds our local communities together. There are school boards, planning boards, fire district boards, hospital boards, library boards, solid waste boards, water district boards, public utility boards, EMS boards, and parks and recreation boards, just to name a few.
Some of these are elected positions, like the school board directors, others are appointed, often by the action of the county commissioners. Most of these governmental boards are unpaid volunteer positions, although a few may get some small travel reimbursements. Here’s how to get started.
Begin by evaluating yourself. What skills, work experience, and talents can you bring to a situation? In addition, there are topics that really capture your interest and imagination. Your time is limited and valuable… what do you want to spend it on? The final step is looking for opportunities that match your skills, experience and interests: Look for an opportunity to serve on a board that matches your interests. You can find many board opportunities on the web page of your city or county government.
When you find a board that interests you, start by attending meetings regularly. Get to know what the board does. Ask for a copy of the by-laws, so you understand the meeting ground rules. Get to know the board members, and ask respectful questions about their business when appropriate. Find out if the members are elected or appointed. If elected, when are elections? If appointed, who appoints? If there’s an opening, find out how those get filled. Joining the board may be as simple as writing a letter of interest.
What does a board do?
A board generally has four functions. These functions are executive search and hire, oversight, policy development and advocacy. Using the school board as an example, let’s look at each of these functions.
Each governmental entity that has a board often (but not always) has an executive that manages the organization. The board is usually responsible for finding, vetting, and hiring the executive – unless that position is elected or appointed by another body. The School Board is responsible for hiring the School Superintendent. The board members carefully review qualifications, schedule interviews, develop hiring policies, develop the compensation offer and make the final hiring decision of the superintendent. It’s a big job.
The superintendent will be responsible for the day-to-day management of the district, so the board members will work hard to find a person who is a great fit for the school district. If their choice turns out to be a poor one, they can ask the superintendent to resign, but that would be very unusual. Once vetted and hired, the superintendent will have the complete confidence and trust of the board until he or she fails to perform their duties as defined by the board.
The next duty of the board is oversight. They will review the financial and personnel operations of the organization, usually monthly. They will review the expenditures and budgets, make sure that the money is spent correctly, and review staffing changes and needs. If a building project is underway, they will review progress.
If the organization needs to ask the taxpayers for additional funding via a levy, the board is responsible for authorizing that. The school board may have to give the final approval of the school schedule for the next year, will authorize contracts of all kinds and board members will usually follow the student activities closely.
Every organization has policy, which is the rule book for the organization. There will be policy for employees, for financial management, for the clients and stakeholders that the organization serves and for organization management. The board is responsible for setting or updating policy, and the executive is responsible for following policy. If a board member has concerns about the way the organization is being run, updating policy is the proper way to resolve critical issues.
Finally, the board members are expected to advocate for the organization. They may be expected to work with lawmakers or other agencies to advocate for the needs of the organization. Board members are both overseers and cheerleaders. They keep the organization on track and operating properly, and they encourage the executive and staff to continue to provide top quality services.
If you’ve never served on a board, pick one area of interest and do your research. Even if there’s no opening on your target board right now, there will be in the future. In the mean time, as a member of the public, you can help the board by attending meetings, asking great questions and making suggestions for important policy changes. You might even get to participate on a hiring committee as a community member. Welcome to the board. We need you.
Nancy Churchill is a writer and activist in rural eastern Washington State, and the state committeewoman for the Ferry County Republican Party. She may be reached at DangerousRhetoric@pm.me. The opinions expressed in Dangerous Rhetoric are her own.