Focus

Clarifying Roles Through Self-Evaluation and Periodic Checks

BOARD RELATIONS by RICHARD CASTALLO


When working with school boards and superintendents in retreat settings, I am periodically asked to talk about the role of these two groups. Clearly, confusion often exists.

The stories exchanged at annual superintendent meetings often sound the same.

"Last May," one superintendent related during one such gathering, "the day after the board vote, the new member who was just elected came in my office and told me she wanted a cafeteria aide fired." Another superintendent responded: "Oh yeah? I’ve got a group on my board that doesn’t want me to recommend anyone for tenure anymore. In other words, we’d eventually have a staff of all probationary teachers!" Not to be outdone, a third superintendent added: "You should see the beauty I have on my board. I’ve got one member who insists he’s going to handle the negotiations with the teachers this year."

These are real exchanges. Of course, I’ve also heard stories by board members describing superintendents and other administrators going over the line in terms of their responsibility.


Understandable Confusion
Having worked with dozens of school boards in retreat settings, I understand the confusion about roles. Board members have asked me questions, such as: "If I have to vote on employing someone, what’s wrong with reviewing the application materials? And if I have to support someone for tenure, shouldn’t I have the right to see that person’s evaluations and personnel file?"

In most states, board members also have a legislated role involving the instructional program. In that role they are asked to agree on whether new programs should be added or existing programs should be dropped. Therefore, it is not uncommon for a board member to ask, "If I have to give the OK on a program, what’s wrong with my being involved in reviewing student results and the evaluations of the teachers who instruct it?"

When one considers that board members are authorized and expected to make some important decisions in the life of a school district, it is easy to understand why role conflicts between board members and administrators are likely to occur. Areas for potential conflicts abound--goal setting, policy issues, communication, dealing with personnel matters, community complaints, negotiations, finance and superintendent evaluation, to name but a few.

Board Self-Evaluation
If I were to list the three priority areas to which boards should pay some attention to really make their school districts better places, they would be the following:

  • developing a focus on improving student achievement;

  • agreeing on the role of the board in handling internal conflicts; and

  • ensuring regular and honest review of the board’s own performance.

    When I ask board members to self-evaluate themselves in relation to student achievement, the vast majority state they should spend more time on this topic. When I ask them what they would meet about, I typically get a blank look. Many boards are unsure of their role when it comes to students and achievement.

    Board members, in conjunction with their superintendent, should review results and set specific achievement goals for the district based on local, state and national assessments. Then, they should charge the superintendent with developing a plan for achieving those goals. Following this, board members should regularly review data related to achievement goals in conjunction with the superintendent and staff.

    One of the most problematic areas for many superintendents is the board member-wannabe-administrator. Often, members get drawn into internal conflicts that occur in districts. This may be as a result of situations involving a friend’s child, being approached by a staff member or lobbied by the union. No district needs multiple superintendents. Unless charged to conduct a duty by a majority of the board (such as being on a committee with staff), board members should communicate with staff only on school issues through the superintendent or at least with his or her knowledge.

    Likewise, the superintendent needs to follow up on concerns of board members and get back to them to let them know how matters have been resolved. Board members should never make commitments to solve problems--implied or otherwise.

  • Periodic Reviews
    We have all heard the statistics. Half of all marriages end in divorce and 60 percent of second marriages result in splits. Marriage involves two principal actors. Boards typically have five, seven or nine members plus the superintendent. Impossible (or so it seems)!

    To keep the group on track, the board must take time on a regular basis (at least annually) to self-evaluate and to build in periodic checkpoints to review the status of working relationships and progress toward goals. The well-functioning boards I have worked with have found means of maintaining open communication, which in turn leads to greater respect for fellow members.

    We typically institute a simple survey on a quarterly basis dealing with topics such as communication, decision making, trust and other group-related dynamics. In addition, the instrument requires a review of progress toward goals. This forced-choice process helps to resolve matters that might be a basis for conflict if not brought into the open and discussed.

    Being a school leader who truly functions with children in mind is undoubtedly a noble calling. The vast majority of school board members and superintendents with whom I have worked sincerely care about the students, staff and communities they serve. Unfortunately, understanding how to deliver to these groups sometimes becomes confused and best intentions get lost.

    No model for board functioning can guarantee conflicts won’t arise. However, when the individuals involved better understand each other’s motivations and build in systems to help facilitate understanding, the potential for smooth working relationships increases.

    Richard Castallo is coordinator of the educational administration program at SUNY Cortland, P.O. Box 2000, Cortland, NY 13045. E-mail: rcastallo@aol.com. He also is director of Education Management Associates, a consulting firm.