Forging strong school relationships

Boards and superintendents must define roles, be transparent to work together
By: | Issue: April, 2015
March 26, 2015

Once a month, Tim Mills, superintendent of Washington’s Bellevue Public Schools, sits down for a one-on-one conversation with each member of his school board.

Obeying parameters honed in a 16-year superintendent career, Mills asks about board members’ families, answers their questions about school district businessÑand takes care not to lobby them for votes on future agenda items.

“It’s really about me getting to understand their interests, their needs, how they feel that I, as a superintendent, can help them in their role,” says Mills, whose suburban Seattle district enrolls 19,000 students. “It is building that personal relationship with board members, which I think creates a great deal of trust.”

Like many superintendents, Mills honed his approach to board relations largely on the job, rather than through formal professional development. Although a strong partnership between school board and superintendent is widely seen as crucial to district success, administrators and the non-educators filling board seats do not always receive training in how a disparate group of individuals becomes an effective team.

Promoting such teamwork, many say, requires systematic attention: setting detailed ground rules for working together, developing a strategic plan, and establishing benchmarks for measuring success.

Without such a shared set of expectations, relations can fray and district progress can stall. The challenges are both familiar and up-to-date: superintendents and board members are navigating a world in which all the bad old ways to fall outÑby divulging confidential information to reporters, say, or covering up unpleasant newsÑhave new, tech-savvy equivalents, such as ill-considered Twitterstorms or critical blog posts.

“It really takes an effort on the part of everybody to develop those relationships and to have an understanding about who has what role,” says Thomas Gentzel, NSBA executive director. “That takes a lot of conversation. It doesn’t just automatically happen.”

Crossing lines

Everyone knows the mantra: School board members make policy, while superintendents manage day-to-day operations. But in practice, lines are sometimes crossed: Boards insist on choosing principals, or superintendents try to negotiate contracts.

“They both have fairly prescribed roles,” says Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA. “The troubles tend to emerge when there have been attempts by one side or the other to overstep their boundsÑfor a school board to want to micromanage the school district or for the superintendent to be involved in making policy decisions.”

With superintendents’ tenure averaging about three years in urban districts and six years in rural and suburban school systems, the time for developing effective teamwork is short, Gentzel says.

Formal training, including in university-based superintendency programs, doesn’t always cover board relations. That leaves a gap that both NSBA and AASA try to fill with their own optional professional development programsÑfor superintendents, AASA’s National Superintendent Certification Program, and for board members, workshops conducted at NSBA’s annual conferences and training conducted by state school boards associations.

The shortage of training may stem in part from a tacitÑand inaccurateÑbelief that a talent for successful school governance is unteachable, and that many of the skills are innate and just can’t be taught, according to Cathy Mincberg, president of the Center for Reform of School Systems, a Texas-based nonprofit organization that provides school district governance training.

“I think it’s still considered art and not science,” says Mincberg, a former Houston school board member. “There is a science to this.”

Setting ground rules

For boards and superintendents, the science has various tenets. The first order of business is defining the ground rules for their relationshipÑeverything from how administrators will handle constituent complaints to whether board members can demand on-the-spot school tours to who will announce new initiatives to the press, Mincberg says. Those ground rules provide the foundation for everything that follows.

“If you have a framework, it’s much easier for you to keep from stepping on each other’s toes or arguing with each other,” adds J. Alvin Wilbanks, superintendent of the Gwinnett County Public Schools, Georgia’s largest district with 173,000 students.

Then the superintendent and the board must set goals and devise a strategic plan for their district, decide how progress toward those goals will be assessed, and establish regular reporting benchmarks. At twice-yearly retreats, the Bellevue school board plans its calendar, asking school administrators to pick the best time to report back on such topics as math achievement or vocational education, says Mills, the superintendent.

Board members sometimes pick apart every contract and agenda item, mistakenly believing “that asking a thousand questions is management oversight,” Mincberg says. “We believe management oversight is a series of regular reports, well-defined by the board, on a regular basis throughout a three-year period,” she says. “That’s how you ensure that the major systems are working.”

This approach sounds like common sense, but historically school districts have not employed such step-by-step reviews. This process “isn’t really embedded yet in school governance culture,” says Dan Katzir, senior advisor to the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. “Higher ed does this all the time, just routinely. National corporations do this routinely. It’s not as routine in school boards.”

Sharing and over-sharing

The building blocks of trust, including even-handedness, transparency and honesty, are keys to making the board-superintendent relationship work, experts say. Superintendents should faithfully carry out even decisions they dislike, says Domenech, and present both sides of every argument, not just the one they favor.

“If there is a problem, then tell the board. Don’t try to cover that up,” says Wilbanks, the Gwinnett County superintendent. “Bad news doesn’t get better with time.”

Superintendents must strive to treat all board members alike, even those elected on an anti-superintendent platform. When one board member requests informationÑfor example, SAT scores for the schools in her constituencyÑWilbanks sends the same data to every board member to ensure that no one is caught flat-footed at a public meeting. “Never let your board be surprised. Never let your board be embarrassed,” he says.

Indeed, good communicationÑwhether about a big expenditure or an upcoming news storyÑis the lifeblood of the board-superintendent relationship. Gregory Firn, now a Utah-based consultant, put communication at the top of his agenda when he began his two superintendencies, in Milford, Conn. and Anson County, N.C.: in his first one-on-one meetings with board members, Firn took care to establish which communication methodÑemail, telephone call, hard copyÑeach board member preferred.

“The board really needs to feel confident that you are giving them all of the information that will help them make decisions,” says Mills, the Bellevue, Washington, superintendent. “If you don’t do that, then it can cause suspicion and distrust.”

In some ways, modern technology has made communicating with board members easier, superintendents say: The thick paper packets of yesteryear are giving way to PDF attachments, and instantaneous email updates have replaced time-consuming telephone calls. But communication innovations have also created new spaces for misunderstandingsÑlike on personal blogs where board members, or their spouses, post criticism of board colleagues and school administrators.

“It’s one of the most divisive things I’ve ever seen, because it’s so public and it’s so out of control,” says Mincberg, who estimates that this phenomenonÑshe calls it “over-sharing”Ñaffects 20 to 30 percent of the school boards she works with through CRSS. “Then people comment, and it just spirals.”

But board members and school administrators have always had ways to make divisive opinions public, says Katzir, the Broad Foundation advisor. “Twitter can be just as bad as picking up that phone and telling a reporter something you agreed not to talk about,” he says.

Remembering who is in charge

As they forge a relationship with their boards, superintendents also must understand the built-in limitations on their authority, says Luvenia W. Jackson, superintendent of the 52,000-student Clayton County Public Schools, near Atlanta.

“Going in as a superintendent, sometimes we think, ‘Well, I’m going to make this happen, I’m going to make that happen,'” Jackson says. “But you can only make it happen if these people agree with you.”

Last year, Jackson inadvertently upset her board when she did not notify them before buying expensive computer equipment needed for student testing. Although the purchase didn’t require board approval, “I learned that, no matter what your process might be, take it to the board first, no matter what it is,” Jackson says. “You’ve got to always remember that you’re dealing with human beings.”

AASA gears its professional development program to superintendents with up to five years’ experience, hoping to inculcate such measured humility early, said Domenech, the executive director.

“It’s very important for the superintendents to understand that they work for the board; it’s not the other way around,” Domenech says. “That’s why we want to catch superintendents when they’re young, to make sure that they don’t fall into those bad habits, where they think, ‘Hey, I’m the superintendent. I’m king. I rule.’ No, you don’t. And the minute you start thinking that, that’s when you’re going to start getting in trouble.”

If a board-superintendent relationship sours, it doesn’t matter how visionary the superintendent’s plans may be. In January, MaryEllen Elia, superintendent of the Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida, was fired by her school board seven weeks after being named the state’s Superintendent of the Year.

“The bottom line is you cannot provide the leadership to move a school district in a new direction if you’re not in the seat,” says Firn. “You can’t do it when you’re not there anymore.”

And when boards and superintendents fail to work together effectively, it’s the teachers and students who suffer. Dysfunction at the top distracts from the implementation of needed programs, and the bad publicity that accompanies infighting makes it harder to recruit and retain good teachers and administrators.

“I don’t know a district that has created a huge improvement in student achievement without the board and the superintendent being friends,” says CRSS’s Mincberg. “It doesn’t mean they agree on everything, and sometimes they have some battles, but by and large they work as a team.”

Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.