Board-Savvy Superintendent

Beyond a Guided Tour: Orienting New Board Members

by MICHAEL T. ADAMSON

The only superintendents who do not view upcoming school board elections with some degree of apprehension are those who already have submitted their retirement letters, those who know they are moving to a new district or those who simply do not know better!

The board climate changes following elections where new members are elected and, too often, the effectiveness of the board suffers, at least initially, until new members understand their role in shaping school system priorities and policies. Taking a pro-active approach by working with the board to develop, effectively manage and actively participate in a new board-member orientation program pays dividends in board/superintendent relations.

Michael AdamsonMichael T. Adamson


When asked about the new board-member orientation program in their community, most superintendents describe a cookie-cutter approach — that is, they arrange for newcomers to get a guided tour of school buildings and the central office, and organize introductions to administrative team members and staff. Next, superintendents distribute a copy of a thick policy manual (or direct them to review it online) and, at some point, they ensure all new board members spend a couple of hours with the school system’s business manager for a cursory review of the budget.

With presentations and introductions completed, the superintendent encourages new board members to ask questions and tells them the door is always open to them. Sounds good, right? Maybe, but only if shooting yourself in the foot is the goal! Typically, after this whirlwind orientation, new board members feel completely confused and are suffering from information overload, in spite of their nodding heads.

A Detailed Agenda
Cursory walk-throughs, staff introductions and budget reviews are fine, but they only scratch the surface. Board members need the kind of information that will posture them to be effective in the boardroom, as well as the type of information from the board and superintendent that will build the trust factor.

A well-planned orientation program follows an agenda of activities and material review that eases board of education members’ transition from private citizens to public officials. It shares basic information about the district’s core values, mission, vision and strategic plan. It addresses how the board operates when it comes to setting the agenda for meetings and how to bring issues before the board for discussion. It covers codes of ethics and rules of decorum, as well as how board members should properly engage the public and respond to concerns during meetings and between meetings. It explains the superintendent’s role and how annual goals for the superintendent and the evaluation are established. In sum, a well-planned orientation program develops new members’ understanding of the leadership role for a CEO versus that of a trustee as defined by the governance structure, and how those roles complement one another.

Ideally, the superintendent is not solely responsible for sharing information with new board members. The goal is not for the superintendent to monopolize the conversation, but for the superintendent to intentionally share that responsibility with a board member or members. By so doing, the orientation process informs and mirrors the collegial nature of discussions that hopefully exist between the superintendent and current board members. (Of course, collegiality cannot be “manufactured” if the working relationships on the board do not exist. It can only be as good as it is. Do not fabricate a nonexistent relationship, nor dwell on the negative.)

Remember, most new board members come to the office with preconceived notions regarding their role and the role of the superintendent and staff. Although most have a general idea of what the school board does and how it operates, the sooner new board members understand their complementary leadership roles, the better everyone will be. A sample orientation agenda appears here.

First Chance
My outline for the agenda of an orientation session is only a suggestion. However, other items of importance may be of particular interest to your school district. The key aspect to recognize is that an effective orientation must be intentional and well-planned.

Although new board members are seldom strangers to superintendents and veteran board members, they have not participated in school governance to the degree they will as board members. There is only one initial opportunity for new board members to be introduced to their responsibilities, to receive critical information that is essential to their office and to understand the importance of effective governance of the school system.

In “Becoming a Better Board Member,” a 2006 publication, the National School Boards Association says it takes new school board members the better part of two years to become comfortable in their role and responsibilities. Shortening the learning curve for new board members is in the best interests of superintendents, veteran board members and the entire school district.

Michael Adamson is director of board services for the Indiana School Boards Association in Indianapolis, Ind. E-mail: madamson@isba-ind.org