Fox Town Hall 3-15-18

The exterior of Foxboro’s town hall features stonework and stately columns all meant to deliver a Colonial look while the interior’s wide hallways and high ceilings, convey a feeling of openness.

Foxboro school committee members might not be going to the head of the class just yet. But with vacation season in full swing, they certainly deserve a little extra credit for sticking around to attend summer school.

The extra-curricular program, in this case, consisted of a perennial mid-summer workshop held this year “off-campus” in the chapel meeting house at the Cocasset River Recreation Area on Mill Street. Led by Dorothy Presser, field director for the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, the July 15 seminar offered board veterans and administration officials a chance to bond with freshmen members while helping develop a collective identity and revisiting strategic goals and objectives.

In addition to a refresher course that covered both state law and best practices, school officials did their homework by responding to a series of hypothetical scenarios which reinforced the need to clarify roles and expectations, particularly between the committee and superintendent. Some were outrageous, others more subtle. But as committee members and school administrators brainstormed different approaches, at times awkwardly and then with more confidence, clear thinking began to emerge.

“What goes on at the board table influences what goes on in the classroom,” said Presser, reminding all present that their most important responsibility is to ensure continued progress in student achievement.

Now, that’s not exactly giving away the test answers in advance. Enhancing student achievement seems a rather obvious goal for any school department.

But in real life things get complicated, and elected officials often become preoccupied with fielding concerns, complaints and criticisms from constituents — in this case, parents or others within the school community. That’s fine, Presser advised, so long as organizational roles are clearly defined and respected, with board members redirecting inquiries though appropriate channels to be handled by the administrative chain of command.

It seems simple enough. Yet in a community environment increasingly dominated by social media, elected officials often find themselves responding personally to hot-button issues or online grandstanding. At times lines get blurred. Hence Presser’s central focus — that school board members can save themselves a lot of grief by focusing on big-picture governance and resisting the urge to meddle in operational matters.

“You’re just another man on the street,” she told committee members, asserting that their statutory authority exists only through collective action when convened in public session — and never as individuals.

It’s sound advice. For all the angst over transparency, much of the present-day frustration with government stems from a lack of buy-in on common priorities. Elected and appointed leaders need to do a better job articulating a clear vision based on community values, establish strategic goals that support that vision (and can be updated as needed), then hold managers responsible for day-to-day operations accountable for progress towards those goals. Relying on the paid professionals to supply that vision is not only unfair, it usually promotes discord in the long run.

These were just some of the takeaways from last week’s school board exercise — which proved that even town officials can benefit from a little remedial instruction. It’s a lesson that others in local government just might want to emulate.

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