Board-Savvy Superintendent

Aspirin (and More) for an Ailing Relationship

by DARCI D’ERCOLE-McGINN

During a board of education meeting, a board member rolls his eyes. Another drones on and on. Someone cuts in. You realize the exchange has become unproductive and soon will become toxic. But the board president does nothing to mitigate this sparring at a public session.

As the superintendent, you say something to get the discussion back on track, but instead you suddenly find yourself being blamed for some alleged oversight.

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What can a superintendent do to foster a healthy relationship with a board of five to nine individuals? Can an unhealthy dynamic be nursed back to health?

Having worked with dozens of school boards over the years, I’ve identified some common patterns that can poison the relationship between superintendent and board, and I’ve included a few antidotes to cure each situation.

•  10 things I Hate About You. You can’t stand certain board members, especially the one who always says, “You know.” You know?

Antidote: Taking the time to get to know your board members builds positive relationships, trust and mutual respect. A great way to interact less formally is to encourage your board to participate in professional development and accompany them to those events. Use your state school boards association as a resource. Also, be sure to provide time and resources for an annual board retreat to refresh your board’s spirit and the members’ commitment to the best interests of the district.

A superintendent who encourages board members to take advantage of professional development will have a skilled and informed governance team.

•  Performance: Yours and Mine: You have no clue how you are being evaluated. Every year the criteria seem to change. Sometimes the board just skips a year. In this time of heightened accountability, every board should conduct a superintendent perform-ance review annually.

Antidote: Remind the board about state regulations governing the process and timeline for the superintendent’s annual evaluation. In New York state, regulations require the board’s annual evaluation of the superintendent, a consultation with the superintendent on the evaluation procedures and a filing of the procedures in the district office for public review by Sept. 10 each year. Your state probably has a similar requirement.

Also, every superintendent should encourage the board to do an annual self-evaluation. This provides a structured way for all members of the leadership team (and that includes you) to give honest feedback to each other. The New York State School Boards Association provides a board self-evaluation instrument.

•  Surprise, Surprise! A board member raises a hot issue for discussion, and it’s not on the agenda. You know there will be lots of public comment, and you’re not prepared.

Antidote: Ask your board president to put the item on the agenda for the next meeting. Also, ensure a clear protocol is established with your board for placing items on the agenda. For instance, discussion requests must go to the board president three days prior to the meeting for consideration to be added to the agenda.

Rely on your board president and vice president to help reinforce the proper procedures for agenda-setting. 

•  Too Many Questions. Board members repeatedly make requests for information that seem arbitrary. Responding fully would be an unproductive use of your time.

Antidote: Communication, communication, communication! While you might perceive some information requests as inane or reflecting a lack of trust in your management, board members probably view them as a form of due diligence. A strong offense is the best defense. Always keep your board well-informed with reliable, timely and accurate information. 

•  Bird Walking. Some school board members operate in the most informal ways, and although it’s nice to have a sense of congeniality among board members, too much “bird walking” off the meeting agenda topic(s) is a misuse of the board’s time.

Antidote: If you see bird walking tendencies on your board, this is a good item to bring to your board president’s attention. Remind your board president that you support the president’s authority and role in keeping discussions on track and time sensitive. 

•  A Goal of Better Goals. Several board members are divided over who should set your district’s goals. Is it the board or the administration? As a matter of fact, you don’t know when the district goals were last set.

Antidote: Ask your board to take the wheel. They have a clear role in setting overarching district goals. They decide what is important to accomplish. You are responsible for determining how to do that. Invite a facilitator to help you and the board become familiar with setting goals that are performance-based. The board should have an ongoing role in monitoring the progress toward goals. That focus will dramatically reduce the chances the board will digress into micromanagement.

As a superintendent, you face a long list of priorities that demand your attention. However, making a commitment of time and energy to develop and maintain a healthy board-superintendent relationship is a wise investment.

Darci D’Ercole-McGinn is leadership development manager with the New York State School Boards Association in Latham, N.Y. E-mail: darci.mcginn@nyssba.org