Dealing with Difficult Board Members

By Lenay Dunn

 Terre Davis 

 Terre Davis is a superintendent search

If you mention the subject of difficult board members in a room full of superintendents, you get a collective groan of empathetic frustration.

While most board members are dedicated to doing what is best for children, it takes only one or two difficult members to stall progress. Terre Davis, a former superintendent and current superintendent search consultant, presented Friday on how to deal with difficult board members using examples from her work with more than 100 school districts.

“Too many board members want to be superintendents,” stated Davis.

Some board members forget to look at the big picture. They may have a vindictive reason that compelled them to serve on the school board, such as firing the superintendent or the football coach, said the presenter. These single-issue board members can be quite vocal and “showboat.” Davis discussed how many board members see the school board position as a first step in an ambitious political career.

Difficult board members often recruit other like-minded members to serve on the board. In a district Davis consulted for, there were two difficult board members who always deviated from the rest of the board on key issues. They recruited a like-minded colleague to serve on the board. This new board configuration promptly fired the superintendent who, Davis said, was doing a great job.

Even if they are the exception to the rule, difficult board members can cause serious damage. So, Davis presented 21 ideas on how to deal with difficult board members. These tips include open communication, transparency and continual evaluation.

Most importantly, said the presenter, remind board members of their ultimate responsibility--doing what is best for children. A district Davis consulted with had a sign posted in the district that said, “Is it good for kids?” To remind board members of their purpose during board meetings, the district engraved this phrase on the back of the board members’ name plaques.

One of the best strategies to deal with a difficult board member, said Davis, is to unify the board. Try to get rid of committees, advises Davis, and make decisions as a whole. Further, as superintendent, you should share your concerns with the entire board and treat them all equally. This builds a team mentality.

Further, Davis recommended instituting a “no-surprises” rule so that issues and questions are discussed before board meetings to prevent “gotcha” moments.

Ultimately, Davis advises superintendents to make good decisions for the students in their district. “If you are making decisions, then you have people out there who don’t like your decisions,” said Davis. However, she reminded superintendents not to worry about that because they may be the perfect candidate for another district.