Role of an Individual Board Member

It is the collective challenge of a board and of its individual members to always bear in mind that an individual school board member has no individual authority. A board may take action, make decisions and direct district operations only as a full board acting in its corporate role.

A board, if it is to work effectively, must develop some mutual understanding among its members. It is advisable for the members to establish for themselves some ethical standards of operation that each would expect the others to observe. Board members have individual convictions and ideas, and they will not always be in agreement on issues that come before a board. If these differences are allowed to create animosities, the work of a board can be seriously hampered.

Each member of a board has an equal right to be heard on matters of concern to his or her board. Each has an equal responsibility to do a fair share of the work, to follow the policies adopted by the board and to accept his or her share of the criticism when the board is under fire.

However, it is not the responsibility of a board or of individual board members to carry out administrative functions or become directly involved in the operations of the schools or district. A board member who attempts to exercise individual authority over the administration or other staff quickly undermines the superintendent’s authority and a board’s own ability to effectively govern the district. In some circumstances, a board member acting outside his or her board role could lose immunity or insurance protections.


Conflict of Interest

Public office is not to be used for the profit, gain or private interest of any individual. To maintain public confidence in the office and to prevent the use of public office for private gain, it is important for members of the board of education to publicly disclose any potential conflict of interest.

The board is required to adopt a policy relating to conflicts of interest for its own members. [C.R.S. § 22-32-109(1)(y).] A board member who has a personal or private interest in any matter proposed or pending before his or her board shall disclose that interest to the board, abstain from voting on the matter and refrain from attempting to influence other members of the board. [C.R.S. § 24-18-109(3)(a).] State law creates a narrow exception allowing a board member with a conflict to vote if the board member has made specific disclosures.

Situations that present a potential conflict of interest for a member of the board of education generally are those in which a board member will derive a private financial benefit from board actions. Members should familiarize themselves with their board’s conflict-of-interest policy and state laws on standards of conduct.


Questions about Compliance with Law

If you are concerned about the legal implications of an upcoming issue before your board, approach the superintendent and board president with your concerns. The board’s attorney may have already provided advice about how to proceed, the attorney may be attending the meeting to confer with the entire board or perhaps no one has yet reached out to the attorney, and your input may spark that connection.

If the board action that worries you is one the board took in the past, then again, the first person to approach with your concern is either the board president or superintendent. The objective of that conversation is to raise the issue promptly so that the board’s attorney can provide timely counsel to the board on how to move forward.

A board may seek legal advice on any matter, but the most common topics of conversation between a board and its attorney involve personnel, contracts and civil rights. Because the attorney represents the interests of the district, not individuals, the attorney’s analysis may not please every board member. Nevertheless, a board as a whole is the client, and it accepts or rejects the attorney’s advice in the same way the board takes any other action – by majority rule. Members who disagree with the board’s legal position remain bound by attorney-client confidentiality and executive-session privilege and may not divulge the content of those privileged conversations. Board members with personal legal questions should seek advice from their own private attorneys.


Speaking for the Board

An individual board member does not have the right to speak for the rest of a board unless specifically authorized by his or her board to do so. This authorization can be implied, as when talking to the public about previous board decisions. Or it can be direct, as when a board asks an individual member (usually the president) to issue a public statement about the district or a particular board position. Many boards have adopted policies in this area to guide the board and individual member’s conduct.

A board member should exercise care in writing letters to the editor and in making statements to the press. The member should not attempt to predict future actions of a board. If the matter about which the member is expressing an opinion has nothing to do with education, it is advisable to refrain from signing as “Member, ____________________________ School Board.” When writing or speaking about something related to education, a member should be scrupulous about stating that the opinions expressed are his or her own and not the board’s unless the board has previously taken a stand on the issue.


Meeting with Groups

A school board member may occasionally be asked to meet with a group of parents, taxpayers, staff members or a special-interest group to discuss a particular issue. The issue may be one that involves considerable controversy.

On such occasions, it is advisable to exercise a degree of discretion. Consider discussing your intent with the superintendent or board president before committing to meet with the group. The group should clearly understand that the member speaks for himself or herself, not for the board. Unless a board has taken some kind of action on the issue, it is advisable to avoid making statements that reflect upon the board’s attitude toward the question. The member also may wish to avoid statements that could mistakenly imply that he or she intends to serve as the group’s champion when the issue is before the board. Whether the board member agrees or disagrees with the group’s point of view, the group needs to know that what the member says must not be looked upon as a commitment of the entire board.

A board member has a continuing obligation to hear various points of view, consider all sides of a question and then vote his or her convictions when the time comes for board action. Sometimes when members have made advance statements or commitments, they find it difficult to fulfill this obligation.


Immunity

In general, school board members are covered by the Colorado Governmental Immunities Act, C.R.S. § 24-10-101 et seq., which shields public officials from liability for good-faith action taken in performance of the school board member’s official duties. This usually means the board/school district will defend and indemnify board members in litigation arising from the individual’s board service.

As arms of the state, school boards are government entities and are bound by the limitations on government set forth in the U.S. Constitution. This means that local boards cannot abridge the civil rights of students, personnel or others. Immunity does not apply if a reasonable person in the official’s position would have known that the action violated clearly established law.