In Shark-Infested Waters, It’s Wise to Be Wary


It’s a profession under siege.

Job security and longevity in the superintendency are the exception rather than the rule in today’s tumultuous educational arena where boards of education change superintendents as often as Elizabeth Taylor says "I do."

Many superintendents complain about the decline in the quality of persons who choose to serve on local school boards. Too many board candidates run because they have an ax to grind with a teacher, a principal or the superintendent. The task of finding competent, caring board members is becoming increasingly difficult because of the greater complexity of the position and the amount of time required to do an adequate job.

And sadly, once elected, many board members decline to participate in school board training.

Two-Way Listening
Good communications skills are mandatory for any superintendent who wants to receive loyalty from members of the board. If constant tension exists between the superintendent and the board, productivity and forward momentum are severely limited.

Boards must listen to the superintendent’s recommendations with open minds. The superintendent must strive always to be honest, forthright and attempt to explain the issues from all perspectives. Trust must be a two way street.

Superintendents must spend time with board members to ensure they understand the ramifications of all proposals, at least until board members can feel comfortable with the superintendent’s honesty and judgment.

The cardinal rule of school district administration has been that boards make policy and superintendents implement policy. Yet without proper training, few board members will understand this concept. Superintendents and veteran board members must strive to curb overzealous members who operate on the erroneous assumption that individual board members are mandated to micromanage the district.

Once boundaries are established, board members usually begin operating within the proper framework. However, it takes time and training. School boards often have unrealistic expectations of their duties and their limits. Boards often will ignore the law or budgetary constraints, and the superintendent must try to keep them focused on the realities of the situation. Both the superintendent and the board will be held accountable for their actions.

Standing Firm
Still feel like swimming in shark-infested waters? The job of superintendent and its relationship to the board is not easy, but it can be achieved. Try these suggestions:

  • Be proactive. Encourage board members to attend training sessions offered by their state and national school boards associations or university departments of educational administration. Provide in-service training schedules to board members well in advance.

  • Be resolute. Be patient and understanding, but be firm in your refusal to allow board members to disrupt administrative procedures.

  • Be forthright. Tell them from the outset that a school board is a collective legal entity. Individual board members hold no power individually. Their personal wants and demands mean nothing without the consent of the majority of the board.

  • Be politically savvy. Realize your limitations. Realize your political bases depend on the stature of your job. Don’t overestimate your power or your clout. Be alert to signs of discontent in the community or with the board that may ultimately lead to job loss.

  • Be legally smart. Don’t guess when dealing with conservative or radical factions. Your one or two school law courses do not make you a match for these organized groups. Obtain legal advice so you don’t fall into their trap. If they want to implement something illegal or educationally unsound, expose them.

  • Check past performance. If a board has a poor track record and superintendents have consistently had short careers in that district, you might want to seek employment elsewhere.

  • Predators and Prey
    Like superintendents, boards also need to be well-trained. Board members, like superintendents, must be accountable for their actions. A successful school board will have a positive relationship with the superintendent. The hallmarks of a successful board are commitment and training in the areas of boardsmanship, school law, budgeting, personnel and collective negotiations.

    Administrative waters can be rough. Because you choose to swim with sharks doesn’t mean you have to be eaten by them. It is the unwary and unprepared who become easy prey.

    James Walter is associate professor and program coordinator of educational administration at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi. He previously served as a superintendent in Ohio and Massachusetts and is co-author of The School Superintendent: The Person and the Profession, published by Technomic. E-mail: