Board-Savvy Superintendent

Managing Board Members With Personal Agendas

by Nicholas D. Caruso Jr.

Have you had a school board member call to tell you she has been approached by several parents who are concerned with inappropriate behavior by a teacher and has guaranteed the parents that the teacher will be dealt with quickly and severely?

Have you heard from a board member angry that his son has been sitting on the bench for much of the football season? He wants the coach replaced and says he may sue the district to provide his child more playing time.

Has one of your board members insisted he be allowed to sit on the negotiations team dealing with the teacher’s union contract, even though his wife is a member of the bargaining unit?

Have you dealt with a board member with a child in the elementary grades who could care less about any program or policy you recommend relating to the middle or secondary levels?

Collective Status

These are examples of what happens when school board members put their own interests before those of the board of education.

When a board member starts pushing an agenda different from the rest of the board and appears personally or emotionally involved in the matter, a superintendent can be put in a very difficult position, impairing the discharge of one’s duties and responsibilities.

From early on, board members need to be reminded that unlike almost every other elected official, including the U.S. presidency, a member of Congress and the town councilor, there is no singular term for a member of a board of education. They are one member of a board of education. Board members have no individual authority and when they approach you to do something for them it is important not to succumb. I know it might be easy to just grant their request, such as the transfer of their son or daughter to another class, but once you open that Pandora’s Box, you will not be able to close it.

You should start by arranging an orientation for new board members as soon as possible. Ask your state school boards association to conduct a workshop on board roles and responsibilities to reinforce the premise they have no authority of their own and to highlight the potential problems of becoming involved in personnel matters.

Bring new board members in for one-on-one conversations early-on to establish rapport and to give them ideas about how they should approach issues in the community. Ask them about their concerns and issues and help to explain how they can address them as board members. It is better that you be seen as a team member and an ally than an impediment to their goals. Board members need to understand there is a district vision that guides and governs the district and your decision making.

When a board member brings an issue to you, first find out whether the member is acting alone or if he or she is helping someone else. Board members should encourage parents, students and community members to use the chain of command. They also need to understand that when approached by a member of the public, they are only hearing one side of an issue. Often a full disclosure of the facts brings out information that wasn’t offered up by the parents in the original conversation. Sometimes people will feed board members “information” that is either incomplete or designed to get a reaction—usually a negative one. Have patience and show the board members how they were manipulated and how they might better handle the situation in the future.

Potential Liability

When the board member’s behavior becomes an ethical or legal issue, such as inappropriate involvement in a personnel issue, you need to explain the legal ramifications and potential liability. Board members also need their role explained in legal matters such as expulsion or termination. They have to learn what to say when a request comes in. If the issue is serious enough, you might have the board’s attorney meet with the board to explain just how the behavior will interfere with the school district’s ability to deal with an issue. Board members need to understand the consequences of what can happen when the chain of command is circumvented. The rest of the board needs to understand this as well and bears some responsibility for reining in their colleague. If a board member continues to create difficulties, call on the board chair for assistance. Your chair has a responsibility for seeing that the board performs in an appropriate manner.

Get the board to develop a shared vision. A superintendent who tries to guess what the board is thinking often will get it wrong. By focusing the work of the board on setting and monitoring goals and policy, it is easier to fall back on those when an issue comes up. Likewise, focus board activities on student achievement. When boards spend their time dealing with operational issues, you need to bring the discussion back to student learning and outcomes.

Encourage and assist the board to do an annual self-evaluation. These are good times to discuss how well the board pays attention to proper protocol. Your state school boards association has facilitators that can assist in this area as well.

If your district’s policy manual does not contain a code of ethics, encourage your board to adopt one. Good examples are available from your state association. Relate your concerns to the code when appropriate.

Again, I must reiterate, do not take the easy way out. Learn to say no politely, diplomatically, but answer no nonetheless to improper requests. Most board members will eventually understand their role and gain a more global picture of the work of the board. Your best bet is to help them gain that understanding.

Nick Caruso, a former school board member, is senior staff associate for field services at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, 81 Wolcott Hill Road, Wethersfield, CT 06109. E-mail: