Boards of Education and Day Schools

by: Louis Bernstein

Boards of Education and Day Schools

Louis Bernstein

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at 2, 2, 1988, pp. 26-27. Reprinted here with permission.

DR. BERNSTEIN is Chairman of the Board of Mizrachi, Associate Professor at the Isaac Breuer College of Hebraic Studies of Yeshiva University and Rabbi of the Young Israel of Windsor Park.
A board of education can enhance a day school. It can also destroy one. It can be a vital asset to a school; it can also be an unnecessary appendix. Although boards of education are rarely free from assorted communal pressures, the ideal board – an independent body – can be a bulwark of support for the educational administration of a school.
A board of education should be composed of people with sufficient educational background to provide meaningful insights, as well as community representatives dedicated to Jewish education. Those with professional educational background are most capable of appreciating the contemporary and routine problems of a day school. They are frequently a source of invaluable advice. Those associated with the public school system are particularly aware of prevalent trends in education and the availability of programs and resources. They can also be helpful in identifying personnel for the general studies program.
Community representatives can offer a board of education insights into the needs and attitudes of the parent body as well as of the broader community. Communal sentiment must be considered in shaping educational objectives even though they must never be allowed to dominate. Politicized boards of education are a road to disaster.
Whereas there may be limited parental representation, it must be realized that parents tend to see issues througlt the eyes of their children. More than one competent Jewish educator has been challenged by parents who have magnified the unsubstantiated and unfair complaints of a child. Such situations create a sense of injustice which can lead to anger and conflict. Our dedicated and devoted teachers must be protected and supported in such confrontations. Although parental involvement in issues thought to be in a child’s interest are understandable and sometimes welcome, boards of education should never become the forum for such activity.
A board of education, usually and properly appointed by the president of a school, must function independently, yet maintain close cooperation with the board of directors. It is not a superdisciplinary body over principal and staff. Discipline problems with students or clashes between parents and members of the faculty are not within the board’s scope of responsibility. A board member must never permit her/himself to be placed in an adversarial role with the school’s educational personnel. A board of education sets general educational policy. It must not, under any circumstances, see itself as responsible for the daily operation of the school. That is the principal’s exclusive domain.
As part of its responsibility, however, it must review the performances of staff and administration. Clearly the supervisory staff is focal to such a review and analysis. Their input must be solicited by all available means – oral and written reports, school records including records of classroom visits, objective outside tests such as achievement tests, etc. But care must be taken that only educational personnel are involved. This function can be compromised if executive personnel and lay leadership intervene. In order to properly assess the educational standards, board of education members must be familiar with their school. School visitations conducted as unobtrusively as possible are imperative. Besides providing an opportunity for input and familiarity, teachers are often pleased to demonstrate what their students have accomplished. Unless board of education members are familiar with their schools, their contributions cannot be genuine. The perceptions of uninformed members about the functioning of a school can be quite remote from reality.
Rabbinic support for a day school is imperative but it cannot be related or equated to the religious authority of a pulpit. Nor should a Rabbi permit his authority to be used as a means of intervention in behalf of a dissatisfied parent.
Schools do become the settings for tugs of war on the parts of clashing ideologies even in American Orthodoxy. While remaining true to its ideological principles the school should avoid any abrasive posture that will exacerbate ideological differences, for, by and large, day schools require the support of the broader community. Whereas Rabbis can, and perhaps must, be expounders of restricted points of view, the school, to effectively discharge its educational mandate, must reach out to the larger common denominator. Schools can explode and disintegrate over ideological issues. This is the kind of luxury that the community can’t afford.
A board of education must coordinate its activities with the school’s administration. It should consult with the administration as to the viability and feasibility of a proposed program. It must recognize that the administration and board of directors are the final authority. Conversely, the administration must be careful not to intrude into the specific areas of responsibilty assigned to the board of education. Only when there is cooperation and mutual respect among all the supportive bodies can a school hope to maximise its potential and better serve its students.

The Lookstein Center