Getting off the sidelines to achieve greatness

“Good is the enemy of great.” So begins Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. “We don’t have great schools,” he goes on to say “principally because we have good schools.”

As the Chamber of Commerce in Billings, Montana we promulgate the belief that a successful community--one that is a destination for business, professionals, workforce, and families—builds its foundation on the earliest levels of education. And nothing drives a successful school district more than a leadership body of trustees with a united, purposeful vision, and the passion to arrive at that vision.

Ten years ago Billings’ voters approved a referendum that changed the geographic makeup of trustee elections. School District #2, serving 16,000 K-12 students, moved from nine district-wide “at-large” trustees to seven smaller, single-member districts and two high school districts. Since that time, our community has experienced many associated challenges: some board members have been elected by their district constituents on single issue agendas that are specific to their neighborhoods rather than comprehensive needs of the entire district; there is a smaller pool of candidates to choose from since the election boundaries have shrunk; and there have been fewer candidates running for trustee seats (three races in the last three years have been uncontested).

It is a travesty to our community, schools, and children that on three occasions in three years, there was not a single person who ran for a school board seat. Coupled with the community’s lack of confidence in the board, voters refuted numerous needed school levies over the years.

Something needed to be done.

To encourage the best possible leaders to oversee our School District, the Billings Chamber of Commerce developed a program to inform residents of the election process; provided tools to lead; and introduced them to the complex nature of school board leadership. We promoted the event to our business members, through media channels, reached out to community leadership groups (graduates of Leadership Billings, Leadership Montana, Partners in Education, Education Foundation) and targeted a number of individuals identified as possessing the business, finance, and leadership acumen needed.

The two hour-and-thirty minute program was offered at no charge and brought together fast paced and informative speakers with the following agenda: a perspective from a former School Board Trustee; qualifications and advice from the Yellowstone County Elections Office; effective governance tips from the Montana School Board Association; and an overview of School District #2 including essential financial considerations presented by the Superintendent of Schools and the District’s CFO; and strategies to run an effective trustee campaign.

Our goals were to highlight the importance of these elected seats, encourage people to learn more about the operations of the district, and ultimately encourage great candidates to seek trustee positions in their district as they become open. Any individual interested in running for a school board position was encouraged to attend. All who attended received a certificate of completion, which could be used to signify participation.

The session exceeded our expectations with 22 attendees. Attendees were asked to rate the program on a scale of 1-5 (1 being a perfect score). The average score was 1.06. One respondent stated: “I think of this event as a way to raise our next civic leaders and it was exciting to be part of the experience. I came out of the class entertaining the possibility of running.” Another stated that after sitting on the sideline for years “your training session got me fired back up again.”

With the elections a little more than a month away, we continue to hear interest from others in running due to the residual media exposure from the event. In March, the Billings Chamber is partnering with the U.S. Chamber to host a Candidate Forum so the community will have the opportunity to learn about those seeking office. We will use the U.S. Chamber’s School Board Candidates Questionnaire as a baseline to develop questions for the candidates. 

A community is only as good as its schools. With the right leaders at the helm of our school district, we will be well on our way to leaving “good” by the wayside and achieving “greatness.”

By John Brewer, President/CEO, Billings Chamber of Commerce/CVB

ICW’s recent report, School Board Case Studies takes a close look at school boards and how the local business community can make them more accountable, effective, and focused on the needs of students.