Board-Savvy Superintendent

Spicing Up the Governing Stew

by Doug Eadie

Serving on a school board can be a deeply satisfying experience, and governing a school district is certainly one of the most important waysto give back to the community and contribute to the public good.

However, even when everything is humming along without a crisis in sight, governing is tough work, involving hours of reading, numerous meetings and frequent contact from constituents. If you add to the normal governing workload the inevitable thorny issues that demand intensive attention — say, deciding which buildings to close in response to population decline or redrawing school boundaries to accommodate enrollment shifts — it’s not difficult to understand why all too many school board members become exhausted, dispirited and even burned out.

Superintendents who are really board-savvy know they’ve got to combat board member burnout, not only because it will take a toll in terms of the quality of board decision making, but also because exhausted and frazzled board members make less reliable partners and can lead to constant turnover of board seats.

One strategy I’ve seen effective superintendents employ is to make their school board’s routine governing work more interesting and enjoyable and even a little easier. Of course, there’s no way to protect your school board from the occasional high-stakes issue that claims tremendous time and energy, but superintendents can ensure the less dramatic, day-to-day governing work their board members do is energizing rather than ho-hum.

The board-savvy superintendents I’ve seen really succeed at enlivening the ordinary governing stew have done so in close partnership with their boards’ standing committees, as the following examples illustrate.

Planning Retreats
One superintendent worked closely with her board of education’s planning and development committee to spice up the annual operational planning/budget preparation process. Over the years, the budget had been a source of tremendous frustration for board members, who grew tired of merely thumbing through a finished tome they’d played a minor role in shaping.

This superintendent teamed up with the committee in designing an intensive work session on operational issues to kick off the budget process. They agreed at the onset of this redesign effort they wouldn’t open Pandora’s box by suggesting the school board had much flexibility to move dollars around in the annual budget. They wanted everyone to understand from the get-go that the great majority of the financial resources available to the school district already were committed to ongoing operations and personnel.

Incremental change, therefore, was the name of the game, and even that modest change would in almost every case involve some reallocation rather than any infusion of significant new resources.

What this superintendent and the board committee came up with was a daylong Saturday work session involving the school board, superintendent and senior administrators. Each of the associate superintendents and directors responsible for a major function (e.g., curriculum and instruction, pupil services, athletics) had an hour on the agenda to make a PowerPoint presentation and lead a discussion.

Each presentation, which began with an overview of conditions and trends in the school district, focused on identifying and describing major operational issues that appeared to merit serious board attention and suggesting initiatives to address the issues that might be factored into next year’s operating plan and budget. For example, the associate superintendent for pupil services highlighted the issue of young students returning home from school to an empty house. This led to a discussion of the budget for after-care programs and an agreement to consider an expanded program for the next year.

Performance Monitoring
Another board-savvy superintendent worked with his school board’s performance oversight/monitoring committee in coming up with a redesigned monthly financial report to replace the opaque, lengthy document filled with columns and rows of numbers that the board had been receiving for years. In the past, the incredibly important financial oversight function had been given only cursory attention, as board members, more than a bit overwhelmed by the detail in the multipage report they received, asked few penetrating questions and engaged in virtually no discussion.

The superintendent and committee designed a new format that made the financial report far easier to understand and invited active discussion. They used bar charts to compare actual versus budgeted expenditures by major education and administrative functions for the month and the year to date.

The cherry on the sundae was having members of the performance oversight/monitoring committee on a rotating basis actually present the report at board meetings, using PowerPoint slides, rather than the chief financial officer. So the report was not only far easier to understand than in the past, the members of the committee also were far more engaged in the financial oversight function than ever before.

Doug Eadie is president of Doug Eadie and Co. in Oldsmar, Fla. E-mail: doug@dougeadie.com