Once upon a time in a large school district on the edge of a great American city lived seven board of education members and a superintendent, working together in perfect harmony. They were a happy family. Mutual trust and respect prevailed in all matters, and all votes were unanimous.
Minor issues and lagging growth in student achievement seemed to trouble some in the community, but the superintendent and board members were confident that public support was broad and deep.
Then one May, there was a board election to fill two open seats on the school board. Two new members who had not run as critics of the superintendent were elected. Soon they were asking lots of tough questions, particularly about finances and school construction, and veteran members were pushing back saying the novices were meddling and showing disrespect.
They began “taking turns slamming me whenever I asked a question,” the most outspoken of the new members said. “It became clear to me that the superintendent ran the board. The board was not giving directions, she was.”
The superintendent and veteran board members seemed not to worry — after all, they had five votes; so, without compromise, they just rammed through their agenda 5-2, vote after vote after vote.
A year passed, and once again it was May. This year, three board seats were on the ballot, and what an election it was. Two more new board members were seated, one quite obviously a critic of the superintendent. And the board president barely won her re-election by 42 votes. A newspaper columnist called the election a “referendum for change.”
Change, indeed! The story gets ugly from this point forward, and as readers have guessed, this is not a fairy tale. Within six months, the superintendent agreed to a contract buyout.
I have seen similar stories play out all over the nation. The particular problems vary, and the personalities are always unique, but the story line is the same: A comfortable board/superintendent relationship is dramatically overturned as a result of one or two board elections, and the superintendent moves on.
The lesson for superintendents is to recognize that the board they will have after the next election is almost as important as the board they have now. Whatever the size of a school board, the length of terms or election cycles, almost all school boards can flip completely within two years, and if one or two board members already are critical of a district’s direction, then one election is all it takes.
Of course, sometimes a change of direction is needed. Sometimes a superintendent has not managed the district’s business well, and the board has failed to exercise appropriate oversight. But more often than not, in my experience, board elections that turn supportive boards into critical boards happen for two reasons:
- external political currents unleash almost uncontrollable forces (rarely); and
- careless mistakes and inattention by the board and superintendent to sincerely held — even if misguided — views about the district lead to shifts in public opinion that go undetected by a too complacent board and superintendent (commonly).
It is easy for a superintendent and board in a comfortable and positive relationship to dismiss criticism as unfounded or insignificant. It is easy to talk more and listen less. And it is easy to be surprised by shifts in public opinion that show up unexpectedly at a board election.
Savvy superintendents take all criticism seriously, keep their finger on the pulse of public opinion and constantly think ahead to the next board election. Who on the school board might choose not to seek another term? Who might be vulnerable to a serious challenger? Who might step forward as a candidate? What are likely to be the main issues in the next board election?
Savvy superintendents know that a stable and supportive board of education is the foundation on which their leadership rests, and they never forget there is always the next election.
Don McAdams is founder and chairman of the board of the Center for Reform of School Systems in Houston, Texas. E-mail: email@example.com