Feature

Recruiting Board Members

by Jack McKay and Mark Peterson


Should a superintendent become involved in the recruitment of new school board members? Because of the importance of who serves on the school board and their individual and collective motives, does the superintendent leave the recruitment and selection of new board members to chance or does he or she become involved in recruiting?

This is a dilemma every school leader faces because the superintendent’s future depends on what agenda items the new school board members bring to meetings.

Local school boards are a strong symbol of the democratic ideals of public school governance. However, for various reasons, fewer citizens seem willing to serve on local school boards today. Generally, the fewer candidates seeking a berth on the board, the more likely the issues of the school district will not be debated fully and resolved. This may mean a candidate's position on critical school issues may not be known before election day and this may run counter to the best interests of the public schools.

For superintendents, particularly during the third and fourth year of their tenure, as many as a third to a half of the school board members who selected the superintendent do not seek re-election. The significant changeover in school board membership may be subtle, but often a new dynamic or chemistry occurs. This makeover may result in new mandates and altered relationships between the superintendent and the board members. The ability to anticipate and understand the new dynamic is critical to the superintendent’s continuing tenure.

Situational Queries

Early last year we distributed a survey to superintendents in two Midwestern states. Demographically, 80 percent of the respondents were located in communities of fewer than 4,000 citizens, and 61 percent had more than 16 years of experience as a superintendent.

The superintendents were asked to respond to a series of situations relating to their involvement in the recruitment of new school board members. For each situation, participants were to select a possible response from a list provided.

  • Scenario: The primary critic on the school board has submitted his or her resignation. What would you do?

    Almost 50 percent of the participating superintendents indicated they would encourage school board members to contact advocates of the school board's current direction. Another 30 percent said they would do nothing. Only 13 percent would directly contact an advocate of the current direction.

    Current school board members have the most influence over who decides to run or to stay on the board. Those board members who are well thought of in the community can have a great deal of influence and usually those board members will communicate with the superintendent about potential candidates. Sometimes, however, a dark horse will emerge in an election carrying a separate agenda that is not influenced by other board members or the superintendent.

    Overall, the superintendent must appear at arms length from the recruitment of board members and even more importantly refrain any partisan involvement in the public election. Even if the results don't go the way the superintendent wants, the superintendent still has an opportunity to work with the new member to bring him or her on board.

  • Scenario: A vacancy opens on the school board. A strong advocate of your leadership approaches you about applying for the school board vacancy. What would you do?

     

    Two-thirds of the surveyed superintendents would encourage the advocate to apply while 22 percent would encourage the school board members to contact the advocate to apply. Only three percent would do nothing.

A Critic’s Candidacy

  • Scenario: A vacancy arises on the school board. A known critic of your leadership of the school district has informed you about applying for the vacancy. What would you do?

Thirty-four percent of the participating superintendents would encourage the critic to apply for the vacancy. Another 34 percent said they would do nothing. Twenty percent would encourage the sitting school board members to contact a known advocate of their leadership. Only 11 percent of the superintendents would contact an advocate directly.

The problem with the superintendent being involved in the school board selection process is what happens when the person you oppose is elected. Superintendents need to work with all board members, therefore you cannot appear to favor one member over another.

There is a helpless feeling when a group in the community pushes candidates for the board on a platform of change in the superintendency. It is tough to deal with this kind of political action. Some see this as a signal to blow the dust off the résumé.

 

  • Scenario: There is a vacancy on the school board. The current school board is basically split about your contract renewal. What would you do?

    Thirty-five percent of the superintendents would encourage their advocates on the school board to contact other advocates to apply for the vacancy, while a third said they would do nothing. Thirteen percent would directly contact an advocate to apply for the vacancy.

  • Scenario: A board member who supports your leadership has indicated to you that he or she will likely not seek re-election. What would you do?

    Nearly 90 percent would directly encourage the school board member to reconsider running for re-election for the school board. Fewer than 10 percent would do nothing.

     

  • Resigning Members

    • Scenario: You anticipate over the next year that two members of the school board
      that hired you are not planning to seek re-election. What would you do?


      Two-thirds of the participating superintendents indicated they would get involved in the recruiting process in some way. They would either encourage the outgoing board member(s) to contact an advocate or directly contact a potential advocate of the current board’s direction. Twenty-eight percent of the participating superintendents indicated they would not become involved in the recruiting process even if two of the school board members that hired them were leaving the board.

    • Scenario: As you look at the most recent member to join the school board, what was their background or motivation to serve on the school board?

      Almost 50 percent of the superintendents said the most recently elected school board members were directly involved in either school committees (24 percent) or involved in school activities (25 percent). Another 24 percent had no school-related involvement. Only 10 percent of the new school board members were critics of the school board's direction.

    • Scenario: As you look at some of the potentially good community leaders that you wish would run for the school board, what is the main reason they likely will not?

      Participating superintendents perceived that 58 percent of the supportive community leaders were not likely to run for a school board position because of the potential loss of business. Another 28 percent of the superintendents indicated that potentially strong school board members would not run because of the time required. Eleven percent of the superintendents indicated that "potentially good" citizens would not run because of the fear of controversy.

    • Scenario: To what degree do you agree or disagree with the following statement? “I found that being involved in the school board selection/election process to be politically essential to my continued employment in this school district.”

      Participating superintendents were split on this question. Half of the participating superintendents indicated they disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that it was politically essential to be involved in school board recruitment. The other half agreed or strongly agreed with the statement.

      The survey respondents added a range of comments. Said one: “Superintendents should not be involved in the selection or election process. I have known some that did and they didn't remain in their jobs long. It is political suicide in this process.”

    Another commented: “You must read your board and community regarding whether or not you can directly or indirectly be involved in appointments or elections. It is possible that some may believe a superintendent's involvement is self-serving and therefore casts a black eye over the governance team. At the same time, being involved to whatever degree is possible is also a signal that the governance and students matter to you. The most important thing a superintendent can do is to read the entire board first, then the community, before acting in this arena. While a good deed may never go unpunished, a stupid deed will never go unnoticed. In either case, it will be the superintendent who leaves, not the board.”

    Encouraging Candidates

    • Scenario: Thinking about the newest member of the school board, did you in any way, encourage this person to seek a position on the school board?

      Almost two-thirds of the superintendents indicated they had no previous involvement in encouraging the newest member to be on the school board. A third indicated they had either a direct or an indirect role in encouraging the newest member to be on the school board.

    • Scenario: To what degree do you agree or disagree with the following statement? A “smart” superintendent would be involved in the school board selection/election process.

      Forty-five percent of the participating superintendents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement. Thirty percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement. Twenty-five percent were neutral on the issue.

      Some elaborated on this issue. Said one: “I believe that a ‘smart’ superintendent would try to manage the process through other board members but not become directly involved in recruiting.”

      Another said: “If you see a problem coming, then politically you need to try and be diplomatic about correcting/solving that problem for yourself before it becomes somewhat permanent. It never hurts to encourage positive and supportive board members to promote their friends to run (chances are they will be the same).”

      Said a third: “If I have concerns about potential board members, or if I am encouraged about the involvement of potential board members, I will tell the board president about those thoughts, but I will not attempt to sway the board. If I need to manipulate the makeup of a board when a vacancy exists just to keep my job, then I'd better be looking for another job.”

      Finally one said: “Although I feel that in some ways it is unethical to be involved, at the same time I feel that communities do not often take notice of a problem until it is full-blown. In that regard as a leader in the community I feel I should at least encourage school advocates.”

       

    Discretion Advised

    Overall, the surveyed superintendents indicated they would communicate indirectly through other school board members rather than directly encourage advocates (of the current direction of the district) to seek a position on the school board. Nearly half of the superintendents believed it was not essential to their continuing tenure to be involved in the process of recruiting new school board members. However, the other half of the participants indicated that a smart superintendent should be involved in recruiting new school board members.

    We found no clear answer of how to advise superintendents about becoming involved in the recruitment of new school board members. There are convincing arguments that it is essential to be involved and compelling reasons why one should not be involved in recruiting school board members.

    The decision rests on many factors, including discretion. A superintendent ought to consider the history of the community and one’s own professional plans. Yet leaving such a thing to chance could prove to be unwise. Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton, an English statesman and poet during the 19th century, captured the dilemma: "Chance happens to all, but to turn chance to account is a gift of few."

     

    Jack McKay is executive director of the Horace Mann League and a professor of educational administration at University of Nebraska, Omaha, NE 68182. E-mail: jmckay@mail.unomaha.edu. Mark Peterson is an assistant professor of educational administration at the same university.