Follow the Leader

Building the superintendent—school board relationship

In most states the first employment contract for a superintendent is a three-year contract. All too often it becomes the last contract as well. Superintendents must realize that job security and longevity are tied to board relationships, and such relationships begin during the interview process. That’s when it is most important for the candidate to communicate his or her beliefs about the superintendent’s role as it relates to the role of the school board.

In developing one’s philosophy on this topic, it is helpful to know whether the board is an elected board or an appointed board and the length of term for each board member. This requires the candidate to do some homework prior to the interview in order to understand the varied personalities and agendas of each board member. School boards are naturally drawn to strong personalities in superintendent candidates and are looking for leadership. Too often the timid candidate tells the interviewers what he believes they want to hear. The problem occurs when that version doesn’t truly mesh with the candidate’s own working philosophy. If they get the job, unhappiness and turmoil are sure to lay ahead. (All too often the school board members can tell that the interviewee is patronizing them and that doesn’t play well either.)

School board associations have noted that boards are policy-making governing bodies and that daily operations lie within the purview of the superintendent. Most board members tend to observe this differentiation until they have a personal interest in a given issue. With that said, it is critical that during the interview, and at times while on the job, the superintendent be the leader and eliminate any temptation for individual board members to step into day to day operations. Any attempt to ingratiate a single school board member by acquiescing to a privately communicated desire could well come back to haunt the superintendent when the other school board members learn (and they will learn) how he or she was manipulated. When a school board member approaches the superintendent privately or even in a public meeting with an obvious attempt to direct or influence some program, item or issue, a good response from the superintendent may be “Is that the wish of the school board?” After an unresolved school board discussion at a meeting on an issue, it might be wise to ask “What is the wish (singular) of the board?”

A major cause for school board member encroachment into day to day operations is a perceived leadership void. The superintendent must maintain the image that he or she is in charge. To do otherwise is an open door to micro-management. A typical example is when a superintendent provides the board with multiple options for some board action but includes “to do nothing” as one of the options and then fails to provide a data-driven recommendation. This timid form of leadership hangs the board out to dry as they have no firm recommendation to follow and essentially are left on their own to make a decision. Most board members know their roles as policy makers and welcome strong leadership, strong recommendations with supporting data and the consequences if the recommendation is not accepted. Boards step in when they are not confident that the Superintendent is performing his or her job. It is critical, therefore, that the superintendent keep the school board informed as to any issues or eventualities likely to cause question by board members.

A good example of inviting micro-management occurred when a first year Superintendent inherited an enrollment decline and the need for re-districting school attendance boundary lines (a sensitive topic on the best of days). The Superintendent assigned the board presentation to facility staff who presented 8 separate options for action but there was no recommendation from the superintendent. At the end of the presentation the new superintendent asked the board what they wanted to do. As expected the board asked for a recommendation and received no reply. At that point, the board insisted on a recommendation from an obviously nervous superintendent and facility personnel. It is a bad sign when school board members pull out their own calculators while sitting at the board table. The door was opened for micro- management and the board thereafter felt free to insert themselves, individually and collectively, into day to day operations whenever they perceived ineffective leadership from the superintendent. New school board candidates were elected on platforms to “fire the superintendent.” The above case was a classic example of opening the door to board micro- management and then being unable to get it closed again.

It is important to have written policies in place that define and delineate the role of the board and its members. In most circumstances individual school board members have no legal power or formal authority. However, never underestimate the emerging power and informal influence that individuals may acquire. Members with legal, finance, business and school administration experience are likely to be influential to the other board members.

The superintendent is on the board team

An effective board functions as a team and the Superintendent serves on that team. That board team is like any other group as described by group dynamics and the prudent superintendent can strengthen relationships by better understanding respective group members. Remember that there are different types of school board members. Some members will be task driven and focused on facts and information. That individual will often request data and other information so they may become informed on emerging issues. With that said, the effective leader will ensure that sound information is provided to the board as an entirety even though the data may have been requested by just a single member. Always provide the entire school board with anything provided to a single member.

Another member type is one who seeks harmony. He or she just wants everyone to be happy. Harmony can be difficult to achieve when tough or controversial decisions must be made; such as, redistricting attendance boundaries, reduction in force, and building or closing schools. During these cases the Superintendent must use data and community wide communication to openly discuss issues, allow input and genuinely include all in the discussion. In the end, the superintendent must realize that everyone may not be happy but must make the

recommendation to the board based upon an exhaustive, inclusive and data driven process. If the superintendent offers the board too many or too broad of options even fewer people will be happy as board members will be reluctant, indecisive and may flounder publicly. Such is not good for superintendent longevity.

Finally, the least effective board member is one who wants special treatment for their own children, seeks attention and/or harbors higher political aspirations. Nearly every school board has a person like this whose main desire is to be quoted in the newspaper and generally seeks to be the center of attention. This need not be a problem if the data master board members and/or the harmony seekers maintain control of their colleague. When the constructive members of the school board yield to the attention seeker and supports an unwise motion, however, damage can be done and it is incumbent upon the Superintendent to review the data and stand by his or her recommendation. Specifically stating, “I have made my recommendation to you, the board, and stand by that recommendation. However, I understand that I serve at the pleasure of the Board.” Most Boards will not vote to own a bad decision contrary to the superintendent’s recommendation. An example was a board member’s motion to grant raises to school bus drivers when there was not enough money to pay them. The superintendent , to his credit, opposed the motion and supported his position with accurate data. The remainder of the school board refused to appr