March 2, 2018 - Volume 38 Issue 8


Roger Hanshaw

By Howard E. Seufer Jr.

Q: As a school board member, I am concerned about what goes on in the school system all the time, not just when I am at school board meetings.  What authority do I have to address issues and fix problems in between meetings?

A: At the West Virginia School Board Association’s orientation for new school board members, and at every appropriate opportunity, we caution school board members that school boards act as boards, and not as individual board members. 

The only individual board member who can take official action all alone, whether at a meeting or not, is the board president, who is empowered by the school statutes to call a special meeting of the board of education regardless of whether the other board members agree, and sign checks and certain other documents.

Otherwise, an individual board member, including the president, has no more right than anyone in the community to issue orders to the superintendent, tell employees how to do their jobs, set schedules for school events, or otherwise make decisions for the school district. 

The West Virginia Supreme Court, in a number of decisions, has articulated this rule.  The decision most frequently quoted by lower courts, the Grievance Board, the State Superintendent of Schools, and the Supreme Court itself (in later opinions) is the Supreme Court’s decision more than 70 years ago in the case of State ex rel Rogers v. Board of Education of Lewis County, 125 W. Va. 579, 25 S.E.2d 537 (1943). 

In the State ex rel Rogers case, the Supreme Court explained the rule in these words:

“a member of the board individually has no authority of any kind in connection with the schools of his county, except that the president, as such, is required to sign orders, contracts and so forth. The board of education can only act as a board, and when the board is not in session the members, severally or jointly, have no more authority to interfere with schools or school matters than any other citizen of the county.”

The State ex rel Rogers opinion is also the source of a related rule that, in the intervening years, has been reiterated by the Supreme Court of Appeals:

“The law does not contemplate that the members of a board of education shall supervise the professional work of teachers, principals and superintendents. They are not teachers, and ordinarily, not qualified to be such. Generally they do not possess qualifications to pass upon methods of instruction and discipline. The law clearly contemplates that professionally trained teachers, principals and superintendents shall have exclusive control of these matters.”

Arguably no school employee is insubordinate or can be disciplined or penalized for refusing to do what the individual board member directs or suggests.  In fact, an argument can be made that in certain instances, an employee who obeys a board member who lacks authority to act for the board could be disciplined for doing so, since the individual board member is not the employee’s supervisor and has no more right to than a random person on the street to direct the employee’s work.

Additionally, even when the board members take action at an official meeting as a board of education, there are some decisions the board is forbidden to make unless the Superintendent first recommends that the action be taken.  It goes without saying that if the board, acting as a board, cannot take action in those instances without a Superintendent’s recommendation, an individual board member certainly has no legal authority to make such a decision.

The lesson for board members? Acting alone, don’t put school district employees in an awkward position by demanding that they do or don’t do things that the average citizen would be out of place to demand. Realize that, in the eyes of an employee, what you might consider to be a “request” instead of a demand will carry the same weight. When you feel the urge to act, direct your efforts toward action by the school board, acting as a board, and in most instances through the Superintendent of Schools. Power lies with the board of education, not its individual members.

Editor's Note: Seufer, West Virginia School Board Association counsel, is a Bowles Rice LLP Partner (Charleston). He is chair of the Bowles Rice LLP Education Law Group.