5 essential elements of a successful superintendent-school board relationship

They’re not new concepts; they just seem to have gotten lost in the chaos of COVID-19
By: | September 29, 2021
Photo by José Manuel Infante / Unsplash

The volatile environment of education today, in large part because of the coronavirus pandemic, has resulted in an epidemic of superintendent-school board disputes, ranging from shout fests at meetings to physical altercations and threats. Superintendents have been resigning in record numbers for the past year, unable or unwilling to accept the brunt of the blame for policies and problems resulting from COVID-19.

If superintendents and school boards are to work together effectively, there are essential elements that must not only be put in place but prioritized:

1. Community input—including administrators, teachers, students, parents,
businesses, government agencies and residents—on the development of the district’s vision. 
Once that vision is in established, the school board should seek a superintendent who shares the same outlook, writes Alexis Rice in “Creating a Strong School Board-Superintendent Relationship.” “The critical place to start,” he points out, “is at the beginning.”

2. Clearly defined responsibilities. Because the needs of a district vary and leadership and management styles do as well, the primary duty of each school board and superintendent to determine together what each is to do and establish policies and procedures that will lead to the successful performance of those duties, according to “Roles & Responsibilities of School Boards and Superintendents.” Keeping roles clear and communication open, they state, is the key to sound and productive board and superintendent relationships.


Read more from DA: Forging strong school relationships


3. Mutual respect. Since the onset of the pandemic, district leaders have had to effectively manage changes in a highly complex, politically charged and often contentious system. Executive director of the American Association of School Administrators and former superintendent Paul Houston notes that, while many superintendents still enjoy their roles, and even the challenges that accompany them, “There is much about the current role that is dysfunctional.” He adds that the work is conducted in an environment that has become increasingly political and “downright abusive,” one reason numerous superintendents have quit over the past year.

School board members, too, are experiencing challenges, including increasing political divisiveness amongst themselves, between them and their superintendents, and having to deal with unprecedented—and continuing—state and federal influence. Redirecting their focus from the noise and working with their superintendent to avoid infighting, find common ground and execute an agenda that prioritizes student achievement over all else is of the utmost importance.

4. Flexibility and collaboration rather than authoritativeness. “Authority relationships function beautifully until the environment changes,” says Ron Heifetz, author and founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, in “Effective Superintendents, Effective Boards: Finding the Right Fit.” But confronting complex and unexpected problems calls for flexible thinking, collaboration and shared decision-making. And the more people who are involved in formulating a district’s agenda, Heifetz points out, the more that have a stake in that district’s success.

5. Prioritization of student achievement. That means being accountability-driven and spending less time on operational issues than on what’s most vital to student success. In a Lighthouse Study that compared school districts with “unusually high levels” of student achievement to districts with students of similar characteristics but substantially lower levels of performance, the boards in the higher-achieving districts repeatedly identified academic achievement as their main responsibility.