Three Keys to a Successful Superintendent/School Board Relationship

By Howard Carlson

Ed, a seasoned superintendent of 15 years realized that his relationship with the board was going sour. It started with a negative evaluation in May and as winter approached board members were attacking him in board meetings regarding “poor communication and not doing his homework.” The board claimed that without proper information it could not make decisions that were in the best interest of the students, staff and community. One board member in particular accused Ed of “withholding” information in an effort to control the board. This board member went on to state Ed communicated with those who agreed with his philosophy and withheld data from those who desired to hold him accountable.

This excerpt from the recent AASA/Corwin Press book titled So Now You’re the Superintendent illustrates how a negative superintendent/school board relationship can unfold. No one wants to face Ed’s plight, thus it is of vital importance that superintendents “plan” for a successful relationship. These relationships don’t just happen, but rather they require tremendous diligence and preparation. Below I have identified three concepts from the book, which can have a tremendous impact on successful superintendent/school board relations.

Equal Treatment

Treating school board members “equally” is the first lesson that must be considered. This concept is tougher than it seems in that equal is not always the same. By this I mean you may have a Generation X board member who is technologically proficient and desires to receive updates electronically, while another board member, who is more senior in age, would prefer a phone call. The key here is that both receive equal treatment regarding the information provided, but not necessarily the method in which it is delivered.

The concept of equal treatment can be an especially difficult issue for new superintendents as they tend to over-communicate with the board president and under-communicate with other members. Or, new superintendents will communicate regularly with those they see and interact with frequently, but fail to communicate consistently with the board member who, for instance, travels extensively. Superintendents must always remember that although it may not be expressed, board members appreciate and should receive equal treatment.

Processing Time

In chapter 2 of the book we provide a list of superintendent behaviors considered offensive to school board members. One such item relates to superintendents bringing new ideas forward in board meetings without extensive discussion in advance. Unfortunately, when new initiatives are being considered and the district is moving at a fast pace this can become an unintended problem. Superintendents need to remember that providing adequate processing time up front will save considerable effort later on. In fact, without adequate discussion and preparation it is not at all uncommon to see an initiative fail. To achieve success superintendents must begin by establishing a process, which includes time for board member discussion, processing, questions and reflection. The process should take place months in advance of the decision and consider “all of the angles.” It is also important to ensure the board considers constituent reactions to an initiative and role play their response. Incorporating the role-playing process prepares the board for when the parking lot fills up at their next meeting.

Establishing a process that allows for adequate discussion and processing time gives your board the opportunity they need to support you as superintendent. Remember your board wants to support you, but clearly they need to gain a level of understanding that makes this possible.

The Friday Update

One of the best ways to establish and maintain a relationship with your board is through ongoing and frequent communication. Board members appreciate being kept in the loop, and it is always better to hear information from you as opposed to them hearing it from someone in the community. One communication method I have found to be effective over the years is the "Friday Update." An example is available at the downloadable resources section of the www.thesupt.com website and more details are provided in my book. The Update is an informal communication that is sent electronically to the entire board each Friday highlighting major events and issues addressed during the week. Prior to developing a Friday Update for your board be sure to provide a confidentiality disclaimer at the end the document and check with the school district attorney related to issues with your state’s open meeting law. In some cases you may be required to have copies of the "Friday Update" available for review at the board’s next regularly scheduled meeting.

In addition to major events, I typically also provide a list of meetings I have led or participated in during the week. This enables the board to better understand the hectic pace of my schedule and more clearly recognize what is being accomplished in the district.

Clearly there are more than three components which must be considered in establishing and maintaining a successful superintendent/school board relationship, but I hope highlighting these three items has been helpful to you. As superintendents, if we will communicate often and equally with our board members and provide adequate time for processing the information provided we will have traveled a long way toward achieving a successful superintendent/school board relationship.

Howard Carlson is superintendent of the Wickenburg Unified School District located in Wickenburg, Arizona. Carlson is also co-author of the recently released AASA/Corwin Press book titled So Now You’re the Superintendent. In addition, he maintains a website for superintendents at www.thesupt.com.