Focus

Changing the Dynamics of a Board From Hell

BOARD RELATIONS by MARY E. SUMMERS AND MARY H. WELLS

Welcome to the real world of school system governance! A closed session of your school board has been going on for two hours. It is now midnight. Your ability to stay focused is waning. As each new question is hammered at you your mind asks, "How can this possibly be happening?"

When you finally emerge from the executive session, you figure there probably will be a 4-3 vote on an issue that never was on the agenda in the first place. An end run by a staff member has resulted in a behind-the-scenes deal being made. You are sure the folks at the all-night coffee shop will know about it before you even have a chance to tell your principals.

Once you return to open session, you are relieved by the thought the board meeting is almost over. Then a board member announces, "Teachers have told me that the restrooms are filthy. Superintendent, what are you doing about that? The next time you interview candidates for a custodial position, I want to be there."

As you approach adjournment at 1:45 a.m., you feel about two inches high. "My gosh," you ask yourself (perhaps in stronger language), "how much more can the board members whittle away at me and the things that I believe are important for educating the children? Am I in the wrong business?"

A Familiar Scenario
This is micromanaging in its finest hour, and there's nothing about this scenario that hasn’t taken place in communities we know and you know.

Why is it that school board members can’t focus on students, instruction and achievement rather than buildings? Why is it that board members with concerns don’t ask for the items to be put on the meeting agenda? Do you leave your meetings and conversations with individual board members wondering if anyone knows his or her role in the school system?

What did they forget to teach you in your graduate school classes on administration?

The scenario above is compiled from examples of board actions shared with us by our superintendent colleagues over the years as they expressed their frustrations. We are fortunate that our current boards of education do not exhibit these qualities. However, we’ve all been confronted at some time in our careers with adversarial board situations.

We have developed strategies in four sensitive areas that superintendents can use to promote effective board dynamics and a healthy board/superintendent working relationship. While we don’t offer a money-back guarantee that you will avoid a calamitous relationship with your board, reduce your stress and blood-pressure readings and increase your longevity in your current post, we do think these strategies have helped us in these regards.

Personal Strength
To succeed in the face of strained relations with your board of education, you must preserve your inner strength and confidence. Poor relations can keep you wondering, "What have I done wrong and what must I do to correct the situation?" Always remember that you were the best person for the job when you were hired. Do not take things that are occurring personally, and do not accept blame for the actions of others. Give your best advice to the board and then step back and let the board decide.

Do not think that you are Mr. or Ms. Fix-it, who is responsible for everything that happens in your school district. Choose your battles carefully and focus on the most important issues. Do not become defensive or allow individuals to push your buttons. Find indirect methods to get to the same point without direct confrontation. Remain calm in the face of adversity. Take a deep breath and agree to discuss the antagonistic board member’s criticism at the next open session when tempers have had a chance to cool down and calmer minds prevail.

Count your successes. You are involved in a political process that you cannot always control. All you need is a majority vote to accomplish your purpose. Consider a meeting a success if 50 percent or more of the votes approve your agenda items. Keep a file of your "way-to-go" notes to put things in perspective when you are feeling down. We all need reminders that we are OK.

At the same time, keep your career goals in mind and your resume and credentials file up to date. Know that you are marketable. Do not sacrifice your personal well-being for job security. Have the courage to recognize that the present board/superintendent relationship is not working, maintain your self-confidence and seek a new position.

Communicate, Communicate
The importance of balanced communication cannot be overemphasized. Keep the whole board well informed, not just your supporters. An effective leader is an active listener who uses communication skills to build trust and collaboration with and among board members. Requests for information, including the identification of the person making the request, should be distributed to all board members. Show the board you do not have anything to hide by following up on requests for information immediately.

Never assume the level of board member knowledge of a topic or issue. Give too much information rather than not enough. Fit the information to an individual board member’s needs. For example, one board member may be satisfied with a global overview while another wants to know the bottom line and specific details.

Keep the lines of communication open. Call and write board members weekly and discuss complex issues before the board meeting. Query the board as to what information it needs to make a decision at the next meeting. Often involve staff members, administrators and community members in board presentations and showcase the good initiatives that you have going on in the district. Employing others in presentations reinforces the superintendent’s message that the educational program is succeeding.

Community Support
Know the community, its values and its culture. Decisions about the school are not just made at the board level. Support for you as the district leader is built upon good community relationships.

The board’s perception of your leadership ability may come from comments of community leaders. Be highly visible through attendance at school and community functions. Get involved in community organizations such as Lions Club, Rotary and local business associations. Volunteer to assist at school and community functions. Allow yourself to be seen as a human being.

Involve the community in the activities of the district. Make available the district’s resources for community activities. Take time to recognize all community members, not just those with children in the system. Use the local news media to keep the whole community informed.

Provide Training
The board and the superintendent should participate in a joint training on how to maintain an effective relationship. Effective board/superintendent training can clarify roles and expectations, foster trust, reduce misconceptions and provide insights into individual learning styles and group dynamics. Training provided by your state administrative or school board association can facilitate this process and provide an independent source for conducting a board self-evaluation.

New board member orientation can set the stage for an individual to fulfill his or her role as an effective board member. Put your board members’ skills to good use and involve them in the training of new board members. The board should establish a cycle for board training based on an assessment of the members’ needs. Training should be ongoing with opportunities provided for informal socialization.

Realize, though, that not all board members may be willing to participate in formal training. Informal contacts may be more effective with them: coffee and conversation, phone calls, handouts and networking with other board members who do engage in formal training.

Mary Summers is superintendent of the Amboy Community Unit School District 272, 11 E. Hawley St., Amboy, IL 61310. E-mail: msummers@mail.amboy.net. Mary Wells is superintendent of the Spring Valley, Ill., Community Consolidated School District 99.