A new group of local education advocates, School Board Leaders for the Future, is sponsoring free training for potential school-board candidates, saying they want to build a consensus around how school boards should operate.

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A former Seattle School Board member, former teachers and former district leaders are sponsoring free training for potential school-board members, hoping that will help fix the administrative turnover plaguing Seattle Public Schools.

In two workshops this month and next, a new group called School Board Leaders for the Future hopes to build consensus on how school boards should operate, saying disagreement over that issue has been a major factor in the high turnover of top district staff.

The effort is geared mostly toward those interested in running for school board in Seattle but is open to anyone in the Puget Sound region.

Free training sessions for School Board Leaders for the Future

Training Part 1: 1 to 5:30 p.m., Sat., March 28

Training Part 2: 1 to 5:30 p.m., Sat., April 11

Where: Room 101, Cremona Hall, Seattle Pacific University, 42 West Cremona St., Seattle

RSVPs to info@schoolboardleaders.org are requested, but not required.

Source: School Board Leaders for the Future

The group wants to build boards that succeed in holding district leaders accountable but don’t micromanage. They’ve hired Seattle Pacific University professor Thomas Alsbury, who studies school boards, to lead the training.

Seattle is far from the only school board that struggles to define proper oversight, Alsbury said, but it has swung back and forth between extreme management styles over the years, one factor that he and others see behind the high turnover among superintendents and other top staff.

At one end of the spectrum, he said, is a rubber-stamp board, which sees its job as hiring a superintendent, setting policy and not much else. At the other end is a board intimately involved in the district’s day-to-day operations, making lots of demands on staff members and telling them how to do their jobs.

Alsbury suggests the best school boards fall somewhere in between, practicing what he calls “balanced governance.” His research — based on surveying and interviewing boards and analyzing student outcomes — suggests this kind of board governance is linked not only with lower turnover and greater satisfaction among staff but also with better student achievement.

About 35 people attended School Board Leaders for the Future’s first official training March 5. The group’s board of directors includes former Seattle School Board President Michael DeBell, past Seattle teachers-union leader Wendy Kimball and the former executive director of the Seattle principals association, BiHoa Caldwell, among others.

The Seattle School Board is finalizing a contract with Alsbury to lead a training for its members that will be similar to what the new group is offering.

Delicate balance

The need to oversee a school district without controlling every little detail may sound like a no-brainer, but striking the right balance can be hard.

And there’s no question that there have been years of friction between the Seattle School Board members and district staff, and between board members.

Days before interviewing for the top job in the Sacramento City Unified School District, for example, former Seattle schools chief José Banda berated board members about their treatment of district staff during a debate about which math textbooks to use.

DeBell, who served on the School Board from 2005 to 2013, including three terms as president, said board micromanaging almost always leads to staff turnover — not just superintendents but senior managers.

Five people, counting interims, have held the Seattle district’s top job over the past 10 years.

While on the board, DeBell was a vocal critic of board members he thought were too activist — although some have accused DeBell and others of being too deferential to district leaders.

To DeBell, the Seattle School Board reached Alsbury’s recommended middle ground during the second half of former Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson’s tenure, which lasted from mid-2007 until 2011, and for several months while Susan Enfield was subsequently interim schools chief.

Alsbury pointed to some school districts in Oregon and Connecticut as examples of where boards have had some success using his recommended model.

Seattle School Board President Sherry Carr said she asked Alsbury to provide training to the current board members. Though she approached Alsbury independent of the School Board Leaders for the Future group, she said she wants the board to have at least as much training as potential candidates may receive.