Board-Savvy Superintendent

Bringing Out the Best Board Behavior

by Nicholas Caruso

Board of education members come from all walks of life and bring different skills, experiences and temperaments to the table. Most care deeply about helping children, but some never have served on a board and are not sure of appropriate behavior. Sometimes you have to help them get on track.

Consider these scenarios:

  • At a televised board meeting, disagreement erupts between board members on a contentious issue. One board member calls another a most disagreeable name. The aggrieved board member demands an apology. For six months the board is stalemated over this issue.

  • A staff member is giving a presentation on a pilot all-day kindergarten program that the board had supported in the prior year’s budget in a split vote. One board member who disagreed with establishing the program goes on the offensive, challenging and insulting the teacher giving the presentation, leaving the teacher in tears.

  • A board member threatens a colleague at a monthly meeting. The following month the threatened member arrives in the company of a local policeman, who takes up a position behind her at the board table.

These are extreme examples of bad behavior, but they all happened.

Unintended Acts

My advice for a superintendent is assume incompetence instead of malevolence. Board members who behave inappropriately are a minority, and those with malicious intent are extremely rare. Most misbehaving board members act out of frustration. They may not understand the appropriate role of a board member. Unfortunately, this behavior reflects on the entire board and shortens the tenure of the superintendent.

So how should a superintendent deal with a board member who exhibits inappropriate conduct?

  • Head off trouble at the pass.
    Have the board start out by setting up an orientation on roles and responsibilities. Many board members never have had their role explained to them. Contact your state school boards association. Most have trained facilitators who can help a board work through issues like these. A refresher can help even seasoned board members refocus on what’s important. Suggest other opportunities for professional development for your board members. Then encourage the board to do a self-evaluation. Some highly dysfunctional boards have come around when they had a chance to analyze their behavior.

  • Don’t allow inappropriate behavior by board members to become the superintendent’s responsibility.
    The board chair should be the one who takes an errant board member to task for bad behavior. Encourage the chair to seek others (another board chair or the state school boards association) for advice. If the chair is the problem board member, don’t start writing your résumé just yet.

  • Try to analyze what is causing the board member’s behavior problems.
    Is it that the board member doesn’t know how to gain the trust and support of other board members? Is a difficult issue frustrating this board member into inappropriate behavior? Is he or she getting advice on how to serve on a board from outsiders who also don’t understand the proper role?

  • Help the board understand that a single member’s actions become the entire board’s problem.
    When a board member’s behavior has negative impact on the district, ask the chair to bring the board together to explain the severity of the issue. Help the board gain consensus on the problem first, and then move to the solution.

  • Communicate regularly with all board members.
    Don’t play favorites. Sometimes board members feel out of the loop and will take it out on you and the rest of the board. You may need to encourage the chair to allow a full discussion of an issue, especially when there is disagreement. Board members who feel they’ve had their say are less likely to cause trouble afterwards.

Refining Focus

  • Develop with board help a job description of board membership.
    The board and superintendent together could write a team mission statement. The statement can help identify the responsibilities of the board, superintendent and, most importantly, the board/superintendent team. The dialogue generated by the exercise may lead to excellent results.

  • Focus the board on setting a shared vision.
    Boards that focus on goals and outcomes concentrate less on the minutiae that often leads to conflict.

  • Focus on children.
    If your presentations to the board focus on student achievement and the agendas focus on how the district is working to promote increased student learning, you will get the board to concentrate on those things as well. If you ask board members what size snow blower to buy, that is what the board will focus on. If the board sets vision and policy concentrating on student achievement, they will resent an errant board member interfering with their progress.

  • Show board members how their efforts are paying off.
    Share data with them that point to success and how you intend to improve areas of weakness. Keep the focus on learning. It’s why most board members are there.

Nick Caruso, a former board member in Bloomfield, Conn., for a decade, is senior staff associate for field service at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, 81 Wolcott Hill Road, Wethersfield, CT 06109. E-mail: ncaruso@cabe.org