Board-Savvy Superintendent Page 12
Disconnecting the Board
From Its Counsel
BY NICHOLAS D. CARUSO JR.
A local board of education member with a vendetta against the superintendent spends hours on the phone with the board attorney trying to find a legal way to force the chief executive’s early departure. This generates thousands of dollars in legal bills. The board votes not to pay the attorney’s bill because the work was done at the request of the board member to satisfy a personal agenda, not the board’s interest.
A board chair in another school district is in a quandary. Some issues exist between the superintendent and the board, but the chair believes the relationship between the attorney and the superintendent is too close and wonders whether the advice she gets will be fair and in the best interest of the school board.
Relations Too Cozy
As legal costs of running a district rise annually, it becomes increasingly important to delineate who the board attorney works for and who gets to talk to him or her. It can become chaotic when no clear direction exists.
Board members need to understand that the board has numerous obligations under the law, and your board attorney is hired to help the leadership team negotiate the morass of legal issues and represent the board when legal issues result. There can be severe consequences to the district and potentially the board if they do not follow the advice of their attorney. They need to trust their attorney if they are going to listen to his or her advice as issues arise.
As superintendent, you communicate with and meet with the board attorney more than anyone else. Usually, that’s appropriate, but if the slightest difficulty festers between the board and superintendent, it can lead to serious trouble. In my work with boards of education, I all too often receive calls from board members, especially chairs, where the conversation ends this way: “The board attorney and superintendent are too close. I sometimes think the attorney is working for the superintendent rather than the board.” This lack of trust can put both you and the board in a difficult spot.
It’s fitting that, most of the time, as the school district’s CEO, you have direct contact with the attorney, whose phone number is probably the second number on your speed dial. Because multiple issues face a district at any given time, you will develop a strong working relationship with counsel. However, it also is critical for the governing board to have a good relationship with the board attorney. As stated before, board members need to trust the information they receive from the attorney as sound. If trust is weak or lacking, you need to help the board work through this.
In any case, the board needs clear rules on who can or cannot phone the attorney — who represents the entire board as a corporate body, not a group of individuals. As their chief executive, the superintendent must be able to correspond with the attorney, and most chairs are granted authority as well to have direct contact.
The board also can authorize a different board member to do so in special circumstances. (Of course, the superintendent can require staff members, say in human resources or special education, to consult with the attorney when necessary.) Yet, it must be clear the member is calling on behalf of the board. The district’s policy manual should delineate who has the authority to initiate these communications and under what pretext. It should articulate when matters escalate to the level where the attorney should be consulted.
A Buddy Connection
The board also must be excluded from conversations with the attorney when there’s a potential future hearing. Boards receiving too much information on, say, a pending personnel matter might end up in a quandary if it reaches the level of a board hearing because the members already have knowledge.
Superintendents may become quite friendly with attorneys, yet they must keep the relationship professional. If your school board is the least bit uncomfortable with either you or their legal representative, it could spell trouble down the road. If conflict develops, board members are going to be suspicious if the school district attorney is the superintendent’s golfing buddy. I suggest arranging a chance for the full board to meet with the attorney occasionally to discuss their relationship and ensure no confusion exists about the roles each party plays in legal matters. It will pay off in the long run.
Nick Caruso is senior staff associate for field service and coordinator of technology with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education in Wethersfield, Conn. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org