Board-Savvy Superintendent

Values for the New Normal

by TIMOTHY G. KREMER

While school districts have endured economic downturns before, a lot of people tell me this one feels different. Federal grants are drying up, state aid cuts have reached record levels, relief from arcane state mandates remains a vacant promise, and consumer confidence is in the pits.

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Yet as financial resources dwindle, the responsibilities of local school districts for better academic results are increasing. You and your school board increasingly are expected to fulfill state and national priorities with local resources.

How can we all get through this mess?

Joint Dealings
I have a suggestion for every superintendent: Don’t go it alone. It has never been more important for superintendents to work collaboratively and strategically with their boards of education. You can survive many setbacks, but you will not make it if you’ve lost your board’s support. If you don’t have a forward-leaning, mutually respectful relationship with your school board, now is the time to build one.

Collaboration is about boards and superintendents being jointly responsible for positioning the school district to survive and thrive in the new normal. It’s time to ask tough questions about priorities and how they define the school district’s mission. How do we measure success? Are our resources aligned with our values?

Today’s economy requires district leadership teams to be introspective. Everyone should be thinking: What can we do differently? What are we doing well, and how can we do more of that? What do we need to change to match the environment and prepare students for the future?

Academic Targets

Here are five things every board-superintendent team ought to do:

FOCUS ON RESULTS. Your district’s No. 1 goal must be increasing student academic performance. Set specific targets that are within reach this school year and orient your board to the value of making genuine progress. Equally important is organizational productivity. Give your board the metrics it needs to benchmark administrative efficiencies and program improvements.

EMBRACE CHANGE. School boards must understand that leaders have no responsibility to protect the status quo. While a minority will cling to whatever exists, the public as a whole expects boards to lead and make improvements. Boards that understand this will stay relevant, win respect and attract resources.

PAY ATTENTION TO PROCESS. Citizens will gain confidence in a school board that makes tough decisions if they respect the process used to make those decisions.

COLLABORATE AND SHARE COSTS. In New York state, we have a campaign called Be the Change for Kids (www.bethechangeforkids.org) that encourages school districts to have tough conversations about ambitious cost savings and rethinking the business of public education across district boundaries.

BE COMMITTED TO SHARED RESPONSIBILITIES. Many board-superintendent relationships turn sour because the superintendent complains that the board is micromanaging operational details that have little to do with student achievement. The cafeteria, bus routes, parking lots, athletics and personnel assignments get far too much attention, while the district’s education program is ignored.

However, school boards are actually predisposed to follow the superintendent’s lead when it comes to establishing priorities, planning board meeting agendas and communicating with the staff and community. The mistake many superintendents make is that they only give lip service to the board’s role. Boards will pay attention to management and operational details rather than education outcomes if that is all they see in your communications and board agendas. Keep board/superintendent communications at a strategic and policy level.

The savvy superintendent ensures the board’s meeting agendas concentrate on education program deliverables, student achievement data and community relations. You should be addressing your board as a partner in designing and updating your instructional program. You should be leading discussions about individual learning styles, testing and accountability requirements, measuring high school graduation rates, college and career readiness, the challenges of at-risk and special-needs students and research on early childhood education programs.

Are these the policy-level issues being addressed at your board meetings? They should be.

A State Resource
Your state school boards association can be a valuable ally as you strengthen your relationship with your board. We know the importance of mutual respect and cooperation. Strong boards need strong superintendents. Boards tend to appreciate it when their superintendents take advantage of the membership benefits of the board’s own association.

The slow economic recovery should not hamper your ability to engage your board on the issues that matter. If we embrace change and seek it out, we will be the leaders that our public expects. Keep the faith. Around the corner, the economy will get better.

Timothy Kremer is executive director of the New York State School Boards Association in Latham, N.Y. E-mail: tim.kremer@nyssba.org