Low-Budget Retreats Can Pay Valuable Dividends by ARTHUR T. NEWBROUGH

School board retreats designed to improve the effectiveness of gover-nance teams provide a break from the daily grind. With thoughtful planning, they can.

Retreats generally focus on superintendent/school board relationships, leadership role clarification, team building, conflict resolution, communication skills, goal setting and superintendent performance assessment. Some deal with problem-solving strategies to address local challenges.

Governance team development is most effective when a retreat is attended by all members of the board and executive administration and is part of an ongoing process of self-assessment that clarifies and reinforces basic purposes while sharpening leadership skills. Retreats can be especially valuable at a time when school board membership turns over with regularity and administrators tend to move on more quickly.

Because most school districts cannot afford multiple-day retreats or retreat facilitators, many of us in executive roles try to devise effective yet inexpensive retreat strategies that can be easily incorporated into our own locally designed and led retreat. A well-planned retreat can cost as little as $100 for food and drink. Local retreat sites, such as area colleges, libraries and government facilities, often can provide a refreshing environment at minimal cost.

Realistic Situations
The Mundelein, Ill., High School District recently used two retreat activities that helped our governance team members clarify decision-making practices and strengthen board-administrator relationships.

On one occasion, Mundelein’s seven school board members retreated with the superintendent’s six-member executive team for a half day in the high school’s new media center. The goals for the day were: (1) to clarify roles, responsibilities and expectations; (2) to build relationships between and among school board members and administrators; and (3) to affirm our district’s decision-making practices.

Prior to the retreat, all participants were asked to complete a “who decides” worksheet that captured perceptions of desired decision-making practices for common issues that board members and administrators face routinely. The worksheet required each individual to identify his or her decision-making preference for 5-10 decision tasks such as approving new curriculum proposals, hiring certificated staff, authorizing the district budget and installing security cameras. Four decision-making preferences were presented: (1) administration decides and informs board; (2) administration recommends and board decides; (3) board and administration decide together; or (4) board decides and informs administration/community.

During the retreat, the survey results were presented and discussed. This activity clarified and affirmed decision-making practices that were critiqued during the exercise. The discussion brought out disparate points of view before the group developed, through consensus, a decision-making preference. The issue of who should decide which books would be used to support the senior English and Advanced Placement curriculums evoked an especially spirited discussion. We selected this scenario because some board members had concerns about sexually explicit passages in a book being considered by the administration. The intense discussion clarified the role board members would play in that decision-making process.

Consensus Decisions
The second exercise—a scenario analysis—used four small cross-role groups of administrators and board members. Each group was assigned to discuss two of eight scenarios. Scenarios include these:

• The superintendent receives a call from the local police chief about a janitor whom the police suspect is selling drugs on school grounds. The school district has no independent knowledge of the allegations and no other reason to suspect the employee. The chief wants to run a “sting”(controlled buy) on school grounds in the near future.

• One board member wants to interview prospective school board attorneys. The member is unhappy with the rates of the current attorney.

• While surfing the Internet, a board member finds a website run by a district teacher. The site promotes abortion, which the board member opposes.

Each cross-role group was asked to present the large group with a consensus of the prudent course of action for each scenario and to identify the appropriate decision-maker(s) and the rationale for each decision.

This exercise provided a rich opportunity to explore decision-making practices in a realistic environment. Most importantly, it verified that all members of the leadership team were thinking and operating along the same lines. The activity also indoctrinated members new to the team.

Confidence Reassured
Because of the extraordinary demands placed on school system administrators and because school board members often lack formal training in governance systems before they become public servants, a leadership retreat is a viable means for developing skills and strategies. We realized several key benefits from our retreats, notably continuity of decision-making practices.

We also believe the joint experiences renewed trust among governance team members and clarified expectations of all parties. This has been particularly useful in the face of difficult situations. Proactive, collaborative communication helps to refine our expectations of each other and to promote conflict-free relationships. As we move with our staffs through this time of uncertainty and change, it is reassuring to have confidence in the stability of our decision-making culture.

Art Newbrough is superintendent of Mundelein High School District 120, 1350 W. Hawley St., Mundelein, Ill. 60060.