Board-Savvy Superintendent

Bullies in the Boardroom

by Nicholas D. Caruso Jr.

School districts take bullying seriously these days, developing prevention activities and dealing quickly and with certainty with those who cross the line.

But what if the bully is a member of the board of education? Board members are role models and their behavior reflects on the entire school district. Most board members take that responsibility seriously and their behavior is exemplary. However, a few believe they can get their way by publicly challenging, verbally abusing or even threatening their board colleagues, staff or the superintendent.

I've had several board members complain to me they are afraid to go to meetings, and I know of situations where police officers were requested to ensure the safety of board members from the abuse of a board colleague. I also know of at least one superintendent who refused to meet with the board chair without a third party in the room as the chair's demeanor (and physical presence) was threatening.

While some bullies are physically threatening, size or gender doesn't make a difference. Board bullies make life miserable for the rest of the board and the superintendent. They insult staff and other board members and seem to be in attack mode all the time. They ensure the community will have little respect for the entire board.

The Chair's Role
As a superintendent, you can be in for a rough time when a bully board member is present. But when that board member's behavior affects your ability to do your job or undermines staff morale, you need to take action.

You can be pretty well assured that if you feel the behavior is improper, other members of the board feel the same way. I don't want to advise you to put yourself or others in a precarious position, but in my experience, most bullies back down when confronted. If you stand up to them and tell them their behavior is not acceptable, they often will retreat.

I would start out by calling the errant board member and tell him or her that there are issues affecting your, and the board's, ability to lead, and that you'd like assistance in identifying the problems and devising a solution. Explain the repercussions of the errant behavior. A cup of coffee or lunch may help get things rolling. Perhaps the board chair should sit in as well to try and find common ground. I've seen the work of too many boards stagnate when a bully is not confronted. Even if every other board member feels the person is off-base, they often would rather let it slide than have a confrontation.

As superintendent, you need to create the conditions where the board can discuss the behavior and, most importantly, to understand how it impacts student learning. Use an outside facilitator so that an impartial presence can help draw out the other board members.

When the board bully's behavior steps over the line legally, you might need to ask the board's attorney to talk to the entire board about the legal implications of such behavior. You need to be careful, however, to prevent it from getting personal. If it appears the board is getting together to beat up on the person in question, the bully will either not show up or will storm out of the meeting before anything is resolved. When I am confronted with this type of situation as a facilitator, I go out of my way not to let that happen. We try to focus on solutions, not just regurgitating all the past indiscretions.

The chair needs to take a leadership role in getting the bully on board. First, the chair must ensure meetings remain orderly. If the board bully walks out in a huff, let him or her go. If the bully attempts to take over the meeting by interrupting and misbehaving, bang the gavel. If the commotion doesn't stop, declare a five-minute recess until people calm down. If that happens a few times the bully may get the message.

Use Robert's Rules of Order. Sometimes a properly applied point of order can work wonders in bringing a meeting back on track when the bully starts his or her games.

Behavior Code
If that all fails, the entire board should become involved. The best way to keep a bully from taking over is to not allow that kind of behavior. Board members should ignore the bully when appropriate but be prepared to denounce inappropriate comments or attacks.

Too often, the board's silence can give the mistaken impression that the board is condoning the behavior. That should not be allowed to happen. The board can affirm a code of ethics or develop meeting ground rules to publicly state they will behave in public.

The community often judges the school district by the actions of the local board of education, so a poorly performing board telegraphs a negative image to the rest of the community. Besides hurting the schools in the public eye, it also undermines the board's credibility with staff, and if allowed to go unchecked, can have a negative impact on the children in your school district. The board needs to deal with it as quickly and effectively as possible.

But what happens if the board bully is also the board chair? That story will need to be told at another time.

Nick Caruso is senior staff associate for field services with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, 81 Wolcott Hill Road, Wethersfield, CT 06109. E-mail: ncaruso@cabe.org