A Board View: Let Educators Do Their Job

A veteran board member asks: Why allow the experts to be stymied by boards consumed by their own agendas? by RUSSELL J. EDWARDS

Ihave been told that if Rip Van Winkle woke up today, the only thing he would recognize would be the institution of the local board of education. After eight years on my local elementary school board, I have concluded this assessment is not overstated.

I come from that experience with the strong belief that if the existing governing structure remains unaltered, then real school improvement cannot happen. It's past the time when we, as a nation, must understand that the underlying problem is the tension between centralized control and real local control. The nation's school boards, as presently constituted and empowered, are at the very root of the problem.

It is our obligation to stop treating the symptoms (such as falling test scores) and get to the problem itself: The basic governing structure of the board of education must be changed. Let the educators closest to the front line solve classroom or buildingwide problems based on what they, as professionals, determine to be their best plan of action. Let the superintendents do the job that they were (or at least should have been) hired to do.

The current philosophy that says, "What works well at one school will work equally well in all schools," is destructive. The person who should have the authority to defend a school district against this policy, I believe, would be the local superintendent, acting within the structure of a new and improved job description.

Short Tenures
The most important job of a superintendent is to carry out the directives of the board. It becomes imperative, therefore, for the top administrator to learn how to satisfy a group of supervisors, who share equal power, knowing that each of them has a distinct personality (and possibly an agenda) of his or her own.

We often compare a school system to a corporation, and therefore the chief executive officer and the school superintendent are compared as well. There is, however, a very key difference between a corporation and a local school system.

The board of directors of a business gives the CEO the leeway to generate success. Boards of education, more often than not, want to direct the superintendent in how things are to be done. Is it any wonder that the lifespan of a superintendent within any one district tends to be so short?

There are several reasons why a superintendent doesn't stay in any one district for too long. All but one of them--the capitalistic desire to improve one's lifestyle through a bigger paycheck--are directly attributable to the actions and mindsets of the local board. (In Lyons District 103, where I served two terms on the board, the average tenure of a superintendent since 1978, has been 2.71 years.) When it comes down to the reasons behind a superintendent's departure, among the most common scenarios that I've witnessed are these:

  • Boards that don't understand financial issues or cost-benefit analysis.


    In my district, we often had to deal with the politically charged issues involved in the cost of running small neighborhood schools. Despite the oft-repeated board argument that "the citizens in our district want their neighborhood schools," the fact is that such schools are not cost-effective to operate.

    Yet any time a superintendent has tried to insert a dash of that reality, he or she has been seen as a cog in the wheels of progress by certain board members. When a superintendent went so far as to recommend tearing down a school building that was not even in use by the district, that superintendent was doomed.

  • Board members consumed by their own agendas don't recognize the value of their superintendent.


    During a recent superintendent evaluation in my district, the board debated whether to adopt an ultra-conservative approach to salary (simply pay the smallest salary increase they could) or pay our superintendent what he was worth. This educator's salary range was about $12,000 less per year than any comparable surrounding school district. Still, one politically oriented board member opted for the miserly approach, and in essence did his best to hold six board colleagues hostage until they were worn out or worn down.

  • The superintendent is hired to do a specific job and then accomplishes it.


    In District 103, for example, there was a point when we were deficit spending about one million dollars a year. We knew we had to bring someone in who could turn that around. The fellow we hired did just that. He got a referendum passed. Then he was promptly offered an early retirement, supposedly because some of his other responsibilities had taken a backseat to solving the financial mess.

    In short, what I've learned is that when strong-willed individuals on a board of education are determined to get rid of a superintendent, the way you get rid of him or her doesn’t really matter. What is important is that, ultimately, the superintendent is gone.

  • On-The-Job Training
    The primary jobs of any superintendent are to act as chief executive officer of the school district, to keep current with state and federal law, maintain a budget, hire necessary staff and oversee all functions in a school system.

    However, the most important job of a superintendent is to carry out the directives of the board of education. In other words, to survive, a superintendent has to be as much a politician as an educator. Given that board members generally have no background or training either in working as a board member or as an educator (and board membership changes substantially after each election), this is often a difficult task.

    Forget what you've heard about education boards being nonpolitical. A major problem with boards, in my view, falls under the heading of "leadership and political game-playing." There is too little of the former and far too much of the latter. The successful superintendent learns to handle each board member individually according to the member's particular style, so that the superintendent (often quite necessarily) sets the agenda he or she, as a professional educator, knows the district should take.

    When I first became a member of the District 103 board, I had little understanding of how an elementary school was structured and operated, so I relied heavily on several veteran board members. This, I found, was a case of the blind leading the blind. Not that virtually everything the leadership did was wrong, but rather that they were simply perpetuating undesirable behavior on how a school district should be run. So all of the newly elected board members were learning on the job from people who either did not understand the job themselves or did not understand how to lead the new members in the correct direction.

    Eventually I had to "unlearn" undesirable traits that were exhibited by the existing leadership on the board and relearn from other outside sources those traits that were desirable.

    Subtle Maneuvering
    As cynical as it may seem, determined superintendents have ways of skirting around the ineffectiveness of their boards. The technique is often quite simple: The board is so preoccupied by political maneuvering and bickering that board members virtually get caught up in a sort of undertow. The board's focus is not necessarily on just why or what the superintendent is doing, especially if the superintendent's moves are subtle.

    If there is no continuity of leadership from one elected board to the next, the superintendent has a better chance of leading the members in his or her own direction. A simple discussion of an item either at the board table or in executive session may mean nothing to a superintendent who disagrees with the direction of the board's discussion. The more vague or ambiguous the board is in an area with which the superintendent does not agree, the better it is for a superintendent. His or her motto might well be: No motion, no second, no majority vote, no action. Given the high turnover in board membership, for all practical purposes, some issues are either forgotten or slip back to square one.

    This may sound underhanded and unethical. But it is the best answer, many times, to a catch 22. A superintendent must do his or her best to move the district toward positive solutions, sometimes despite board decisions to the contrary. This is all the more true because regardless of who initiated a program, the board ultimately will hold the superintendent accountable (sometimes to the point of not renewing his or her contract or simply firing the superintendent on the spot).

    Clearly, a good superintendent must be part psychologist and part consensus-maker, a personable individual who can identify and work with all sorts of people, a person who is competent and who can lead positively while also dodging arrows of criticism. The superintendent has so many responsibilities and is held accountable to such a high degree that he must do whatever it takes to move the district forward. In short, the superintendent must be perfect. If he fails at that, he moves on to another school district.

    Elusive Test Scores
    Every year, in school districts around the country, boards of education are presented with the latest round of standardized test scores. After several years of these reports, it seems as if you are experiencing an ongoing déjà vu. This year math scores are down, so the school board sets a goal to emphasize the math programs. Next year math scores will be up, but then reading scores will be down. On and on it goes.

    Part of the problem, at least in my district, is that the board members are so concerned with improving test scores that, in most instances, there is no check and balance to determine whether what they implemented last year is in fact working for or against academic improvement. Here is my central point: Because the board is continually chasing after improved test scores, it also is always trying new things, without a fair evaluation of what's already in place. And we are still chasing after symptoms, not causes, of the problem.

    To the average person, low test scores are mostly understood to mean that the students are doing poorly because something is wrong with the educational system. This may or may not be true. The reality, of course, is that low scores may be a result of many things beyond the control of a teacher, principal or superintendent. It would be out of the ordinary for a board of education to view things otherwise when looking at a graph that showed test scores falling. More often, in my experience, the board has a propensity to have someone's head. Guess who?

    Real Local Control
    The only way to accomplish what must be done is through genuine local control, which means a governing structure that moves the decision-making power away from a centralized authority and down to the building level. Real local control takes the ultimate decision-making power out of the hands of the few (the board) and places it into the hands of many (parents, teachers, administrators and community members).

    Each school should elect its own governing board composed of representatives of all the community stakeholders. This is similar to established governing structures such as those of private schools. This new entity would have limited power, in stark contrast to the current arrangement.

    A second major difference would be the limited power that this governing group could exercise. This board would join with the principal, teacher representatives and student representatives to make primarily policy decisions, but any decision made by the board could be overturned by the building principal.

    Of course the autocrats, loose cannons and would-be-politicians are not all hidden away within the school board's ranks. Check-and-balance procedures must apply to the principal, parents or teacher representatives as well. But certain duties clearly are within the CEO's domain. Budget and finance, curriculum and instruction programs, for example, should be within the purview of the chief academic officer, the district superintendent. The district superintendent would serve as a person whom the principal could work with to provide education for the children.

    In the somewhat streamlined chain of command that I envision, the next highest authority above the principal would be the district superintendent, who also would have a new job description. In my proposed system, any decisions that need to be made at the building level are indeed made at the building level. The elected governing board for the school sits in concert with the principal to define goals for the school building. The principal, in turn, would work through a strategic planning process to get input from the parents, the teachers, the students and community members.

    The superintendent would act as a check and balance over the principal and would be able to cover more area and oversee more schools because his or her duties would be limited to primarily being a resource for the principal and interacting with any party that believed the building principal was overexerting his or her power. Given the scope of the superintendent's current responsibilities, the more school buildings he oversees, the less control he really has over each school and its problems.

    The duties of the district superintendent, as I propose them, would be limited to acting as an intermediary between the building principal and any person (or group) that falls below that position. The district superintendent would mediate disputes between the building principal and any of the other stakeholders--the governing board, the parent, the teacher or the community member. The state boards of education would function as a final check and balance of power. Thus the decision-making power on almost all issues is removed from those at the top of the hierarchical structure, who have little real knowledge of the educational process, and placed in the hands of those who do.

    Closing the Chasm
    The current, outdated governance system, in which boards of education exercise their autocracy, has caused a still-growing separation between employees and employers within our public school systems. How absurd to perpetuate a system in which orders are handed down to educators from a board composed of people who, by and large, are not educators.

    What we are left with is a situation where superintendents and principals, the experts on education, take marching orders from an educational laity. Today, we may be approaching the chasm of competing needs and goals across which these groups cannot hear each other at all.

    The ability of boards of education to really act as children's advocates has become an impossible task. This archaic system of inexperienced leadership and destructive governance of our schools has got to stop. The life opportunities of too many of our students are at stake.

    Russell Edwards served eight years on the board of the Lyons, Ill., Elementary School District 103 and attained the status of a master school board member through the Illinois Association of School Boards. He can be reached at P.O. Box 268, Lyons, IL 60534. E-mail: rjjej@aol.com. This article is based on Edwards' book, How Boards of Education are Failing Your Children.