Board-Savvy Superintendent

Corporate Boards and Substantive Leadership


Some months ago, I was in a metropolitan area in Texas on business and attended a meeting of the local school board.


As a consultant to school boards, I am keenly interested in the quality of board governance. What I saw was a textbook case of a board undermining the very organization it was entrusted to preserve.

BoardSavvy NemirBill Nemir

The issue under discussion was a bond refinancing to save the school district a great deal of money. The issue had been discussed before. But time was of the essence because of the interest rate being offered. From the presence of cameras, I could tell the meeting was being televised or webcast.

If their body language had not tipped me off to tension among the board members, any doubt was dispelled when one member began to speak. His distrust of administration was evident in the questions he asked, in his tone of voice and in the suspicion with which he greeted the administrators’ responses. The longer he spoke, the more the body language of other members signaled growing anger at his implicit attacks on school district management.

A Public Perception
In my 25 years of working with boards of education, this was hardly the first time I had seen such an exchange. Yet I found myself asking something I had never asked before: If I were a parent in this district and stumbled across this meeting on TV, how would I react? Would I feel enthusiastic about entrusting my child’s education to an organization whose leadership exhibited such implicit disrespect for and suspicion of each other?

If I were an investor in the district (that’s essentially what taxpayers are — investors in the collective future of the district’s children and the community), would I feel confident that my investment would pay off?

Unflattering Picture
The answer to both questions is no. As a parent, I would have wondered what other options I had. A charter school? A nearby school district I could move to? Absent options, I would be anxious that however good my child’s classroom experience this year, I had no assurance next year’s would be comparable and no confidence the district could provide the education I wanted.

As an investor-taxpayer, I’d hardly have been eager to pour additional taxes into an organization whose leadership seemed unable to perform routine tasks without rancor.

So, I asked myself, what would that parent who is flipping through channels want to see to give her better confidence about entrusting her child to the district? What would the investor-taxpayer want to see to feel the investment is benefitting the community and its citizens?

Not just a group of whistle-blowers who see potential malfeasance in every district transaction. And not a group of mindless cheerleaders, spouting pieties about “what’s best for kids” with no acknowledgment that we don’t always know what’s best for kids and often can’t afford to do it even when we do know.

What the public wants and expects is a board that makes hard choices in the absence of adequate resources. Furthermore, the public not only wishes that these choices be made, but that they be made thoughtfully and deliberately rather than haphazardly. What they want is a board actively and thoughtfully encouraging creative thinking in the organization, excited by creative possibilities, insisting on due diligence but willing to take risks, knowing and fully acknowledging the possibility of failure when the potential benefits for the community are meaningful and exciting.

Most importantly, what they want is a board of citizens who know they are not professional educators but know that education exists for the public good, a board of citizens who can and do discuss the public good with educators as equals, knowing that what counts as “the public good” is never a given but is decided by our actions.

Forward Thinking
This is hardly what the school board I observed was providing. But it is exactly what the boards I work with — when offered such a vision — want to be doing. They want to engage in substantive leadership, not endless oversight.

The reason they don’t is clearly a complex matter. But there are four things board consultants and superintendents can do to help.

One is to help boards see they are shaping the culture of the district and the community by the decisions they make, to help them reframe issues in more than short-term and operational terms, so that the more lasting implications of their decisions for the community are clear.

Another is to encourage a serious conversation among the board about what corporate oversight and corporate leadership look like, so these matters are not defined ad hoc through individual issues but are the product of deliberate discussion.

A third is to remind them that their discourse sets the tenor for civic discourse in the community at large.

And finally, one can help them see that if a board’s vision for its work is petty and parochial, the community that is looking to them for leadership will follow suit.

Bill Nemir is director of leadership team services with the Texas Association of School Boards in Austin, Texas. E-mail: