Board-Savvy Superintendent

Different Strokes for Different Folks

by Frederick M. Hess

I recently had the same conversation about local school reform with two superintendents—one from a large, urban district in the East and the other from a small district in the Midwest.

Both superintendents were working with their respective boards to approve, design and fund reading initiatives consistent with the new federal guidelines. Both had encountered resistance due to tight budgets, potentially recalcitrant teachers and board members worried about the response of influential parents. Drawing on their training and professional experience, both superintendents had tried to resolve the conflict by seeking buy-in and pursuing consensus.

At this point, the conversations went in two very different directions. The small-district superintendent had enjoyed significant success with this strategy. The initiative was in good shape and moving forward. The large-district superintendent was bogged down amidst concerns about the impact on the district’s magnet programs, how to ensure professional development wouldn’t run afoul of collective bargaining provisions and which schools would be required to adopt the reading program.

Disparate Conditions

Why such dissimilar outcomes from similar efforts? Is it because one superintendent was so much savvier than the other? I don’t believe so. Rather, they were negotiating fundamentally different political environments—one conflictual and heavily politicized, the other much more conducive to collegial decision making.

Superintendents need to understand the political context in which they work. After all, they are public officials, hired by public representatives and charged with serving the public’s children. Serving those children effectively requires recognizing the political opportunities and limitations in their environment.

Unfortunately, most professional political guidance tends toward the banal. Superintendents are advised to “seek consensus” and “keep the civic leadership in the loop.” Such advice ignores the real differences that exist across districts. Because many superintendents assume their positions with little political experience, bad advice can have an enormous impact.

A 2002 National School Boards Association study of more than 800 school districts helps illustrate how much the political challenges vary from one district to another. Especially useful here was the comparison of board characteristics in large, heterogeneous school districts that enroll more than 25,000 students and in smaller districts of less than 5,000.

Small district school boards are less political than those in large districts. While 94 percent of small district board members spent less than $1,000 on their latest election, more than a third of large district members spent at least $5,000.

Small district board members run for office without funds from political interests; more than 90 percent either finance their own campaign or raise all their money from friends and family. Meanwhile, 61 percent of large district candidates raised money from employee unions and 68 percent solicit the business community for support. Large districts are much more conventionally political.

Small board members are less likely to have received board training, less likely to have experience serving on other kinds of community boards and unlikely to spend even five hours a week on board-related duties. Large district board members are much more likely to receive nominal salaries and about half of large district board members devote 10 or more hours a week to board business.

Similarly, small district boards are far less concerned with media-hyped issues such as overcrowding, substance abuse and school violence. While 77 percent of large district board members were concerned about overcrowded schools, the figure was just 46 percent in small districts. While 69 percent of large board members indicate school violence is a moderate or major concern, 63 percent of small district members say it is a mild concern or not a concern. As a result, superintendents in smaller districts who get swept up in the latest missives from national organizations may be distracted from local priorities.

Large district school boards are more likely to engage the community in decisions than small district boards with 77 percent of large districts seeking formal community input on budgeting decisions and more than half doing so on school closings, while just 43 percent of small districts do so on budgeting and only 17 percent do so on school closures. Small district superintendents do not face the same pressure as their large district peers to constantly build bridges with various stakeholder groups.

Open Eyes

School boards appoint superintendents to office and control their fate. Superintendents need to be responsive to the board and to educate and guide board members. Both sets of tasks require understanding one’s board. Compared to the large districts that attract extensive media attention, small district boards generally spend less time on school affairs, seek less formal community input, have more modest concerns and run in less-politicized campaigns. Small districts that offer placid, consensual environments require different leadership than their larger, more politicized brethren.

These distinctions between large and small district boards are only a few of the many that the savvy superintendent should note. Superintendents need to be aware of these differences when they move from one district to another. Effective superintendents take direction not from some universal playbook but by attending to the political and educational realities of the community they serve.

Rick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, 1150 17th St., N.W., Washington, DC 20036. E-mail: