Six Habits To Make You a Hit With Your School Board

by James R. Rickabaugh and Michael L. Kremer

When the relationship between the school board and superintendent works, almost any challenge can be met and overcome.

Conversely, when suspicion, resentment, and frustration exist between board members and the superintendent, the smallest problem can become a crisis. When superintendent/board relationships are not smooth, students and the community will feel the negative impact.

Everyone wants a positive, confident, and trusting relationship with a significant other, so why do so many school board/superintendent teams struggle endlessly and even break up?

Practical Steps

We have discovered three key elements to building, maintaining, and strengthening the board/superintendent relationship. First, expectations of each party must be clear. Second, communication must be timely, consistent and focused on the needs and expectations of both parties. Third, trust must be present, but that element is a natural outgrowth of the first two elements.

We have developed a set of six practical, easily managed but very effective techniques or habits that, if practiced consistently, can significantly improve board/superintendent relations. With these habits in mind, school board/superintendent relations will possess the important characteristics of clarity and effective communication along with high levels of trust and confidence.

Habit No. 1: Remove surprises from board meetings.

The most dreaded of superintendent nightmares arise when board members question the superintendent on a matter he or she feels unprepared to answer without further information. Fortunately, this nightmare can be prevented or minimized if the superintendent habitually calls board members a day or so in advance of each board meeting.

This practice creates an expectation among board members that you will be contacting them so they are more likely to review their information packets sent before meetings. It also gives board members an opportunity to ask questions they otherwise might hold until the meeting, giving you the chance to answer immediately or use the time prior to the board meeting to develop a quality response.

Further, if issues or questions collected through your calls to board members will require additional research or information gathering, these tasks can be completed and the information available by meeting time. Finally, pre-meeting calls send a consistent message to board members that the superintendent is prepared and committed to meeting their needs.

Habit No. 2: Maintain a follow-up routine on assignments.

One of the most troublesome and often difficult-to-defend accusations from board members is that the superintendent and other administrators do not follow through on board member requests and assignments. This charge is especially difficult to answer if no record exists of exactly what requests and assignments were made. An easy-to-implement practice to prevent such misunderstandings is a board meeting follow-up memo.

This technique involves making notes during the board meeting of items requiring attention or follow-up. Immediately after the board meeting or the next day, these items can be converted quickly to a list of tasks followed by designation of the staff member who will take responsibility for follow-through. The memo can be copied and sent to board members within a few days of the board meeting with a request that if any tasks or assignments from the meeting have been overlooked or misunderstood, board members contact the superintendent as soon as possible.

This habit ensures that agreement exists among board members and the superintendent regarding any needed follow-up, creates a clear assignment list for staff, and serves as an ongoing record of tasks completed or remaining.

Status reports of board meeting follow-up tasks can serve as part of the annual superintendent evaluation. Board members will be impressed by how much work has been accomplished and just how many assignments result from each meeting. If too many tasks have not been completed, this factor also can trigger board/superintendent review and discussion.

Rapid Response

Habit No. 3: Develop and follow guidelines for when to contact board members.

Normally, board members may be satisfied with weekly reports and the information provided at board meetings. Yet when crises or unexpected events occur, board members usually want information immediately.

This need can be met by holding a frank discussion with board members regarding their expectations and the circumstances in which they want to be contacted. If these expectations are unrealistic, this is the time to seek modifications, not when an incident arises. Once established, the expectations can be built into crisis response plans to guide administrative actions.

Obviously, board members cannot be informed of every happening in the school district. Yet they can become important and vocal supporters when properly informed. When embarrassed by lack of information, they can become difficult to please.

Habit No. 4: Develop a consistent process for responding to individual board member requests.

Sharing too much information with one board member to the exclusion of others is dangerous. A good rule of thumb is to share written communication provided to an individual board member with all board members.

Further, if more than one board member asks the same question, the full board may benefit from the answer even when it’s brief and informal. Likewise, if an inquiry or request from one board member results in a response that may interest the entire board, it is a good idea to share it with all. Finally, if you wonder whether information given to one board member should go to all, it is best to err on the side of sharing.

Helping Hand

Habit No. 5: Position yourself for success with the board.

Whether making a presentation or offering recommendations, the superintendent should maintain a position of helping the board make the best decision. You can accomplish handle this by routinely taking three actions.

First, refer to any existing board policies that impact the issue at hand.

Second, if board members ask questions for which answers are not readily available or for which additional information will be required, avoid the temptation to speculate or give superficial answers. Rather, offer to collect the information or develop a response and return with the best information you can. This technique preserves the opportunity to learn more about the intent of the question and study more completely the issue.

Third, if the board does not support your initial proposal or recommendation, don’t become so attached to it that you are closed to other alternatives. If you allow yourself to be caught in a confrontation with the board, you no longer are in a position to help make the best decision. The mindset of always supporting the best course of action, not just your idea, will strengthen your relationship with the board and lengthen your tenure.

Habit No. 6: Don’t push if a board member already is dug in.

Occasionally, we encounter board members who are so resistant to an idea or proposal they seem almost literally to be dug in. If all we do is push, they are likely to become even more resistant. If we push so hard we dislodge them by force, we are likely to generate ill will and resentment that will rob us of support on this and future issues. Consider, then, three techniques to counter resistance.

First, take time to really listen. Resisters often provide valuable clues as to how a proposal might be adjusted to loosen their resistance and gain their support.

Second, avoid pressing in the direction of their resistance. Instead, consider lateral approaches that respect their concerns while offering an alternative.

Third, be patient with and sensitive to the board member’s perspective. Even if you can’t offer the modification or alternative desired, the respect you show to resisters and their concerns can lessen resistance and increase cooperation.

Living Example

These habits represent tried-and-true approaches that will increase the likelihood your relationship with your school board will be healthier and stronger and that trust and confidence will grow on both sides.

Perhaps you might even find board members using you as an example when they talk to their colleagues about leadership, effective problem solving, and good decision making.

James Rickabaugh is superintendent of the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District in Burnsville, Minn. Michael Kremer is superintendent of the Hopkins, Minn., School District.