Outside the classroom, superintendent-school board relationships are surely among the most impactful partnerships in a school district.
Many leaders have watched experienced superintendents forced out by newly elected school board members over political differences sparked by curriculum choices, social-emotional learning and other hot-button issues. But even though those clashes have made local and even national headlines, they don’t appear to be the norm in public education.
“I have an excellent relationship with my board,” says Carl Dolente, superintendent of the Cumberland Regional School District in New Jersey. “When I hear or read some of the horror stories my colleagues are faced with, I can’t help but feel incredibly blessed and fortunate to have such a supportive, student-focused BOE that understands the complexities of running an efficient and effective school district.”
“Secrets” to superintendent-school board relationships
Here, four superintendents talk about the keys to maintaining strong school board relationships that lay the groundwork for student and staff success.
Stephen Rodriguez, Pottstown School District (Pennsylvania)
After seven years as superintendent, Rodriguez describes his relationship with his board as “excellent” and “mission-driven.” He counsels that relationships take time and effort to build but are easily damaged and can unravel quickly.
“I believe the key to collaborating effectively with the school board is continuous communication and honesty, especially in difficult situations,” Rodriguez explains. “If both the board and administrative team are sensitive to the importance of trusting relationships and don’t take each other for granted, the students and the community will be the beneficiaries of positive, excellent sustained leadership.”
Keith Miles, Bridgeton Public Schools (New Jersey)
Bridgeton Public Schools is experiencing “unprecedented shortages in math, science, special education and bilingual teachers.” Keith Miles and his team are also grappling with aging buildings while working to update the curriculum to keep up with the college-and-career aspirations of students.
“The key to effective collaboration is transparency, frequent communication, and trust,” Miles says. “Keeping the board informed of all challenges as well as the changing needs of the district’s students, families, and staff is vital to maintaining a strong and positive relationship.”
*Miles recently agreed to become the superintendent of the School District of Lancaster in Pennsylvania this summer.
Carl Dolente, Cumberland Regional School District
None of the members of the Cumberland Regional School District’s board take an “individual approach” to making district decisions. That means their personal views take a back seat to what’s best for students and staff, Dolente asserts.
More from DA: Student success—What have we learned about what does and doesn’t work?
“They do a phenomenal job of looking at the district as a whole, through a global perspective, not a singularly focused lens often associated with hidden agendas,” he says.
Two keys to collaborating effectively with the board are total transparency and humility. “It is essential for there to be mutual respect for the roles we play respective to our different positions and an understanding that we will not always agree or see eye-to-eye on every issue, and that’s OK,” Rodriguez adds. “It is also important to address their issues and concerns with a sense of urgency and provide them with immediate follow-up to inquires or investigations.”
Erick Pruitt, Ankeny Community School District (Iowa)
In just two years as superintendent, Erick Pruitt has led his team in producing a five-year strategic plan, a profile of a graduate and a DEI framework. Now, the priority is collaborating with his educators to envision and shape the future.
“Clear and transparent communications are vital. I meet with each individual board member once a month for a check-in,” Pruitt says. “The relationship is based on being honest about the strengths, growth areas and challenges we experience throughout our schools.”