Board-Savvy Superintendent

When Your Board Chair Is a Big Bully

by Nicholas D. Caruso Jr.

Scenes from the boardroom:

  • After a contentious board of education meeting, the imposing and portly board chair threatens to the superintendent to “knock your block off!”
  • The chair makes clear she wants you gone, even though the rest of the board seems to be supportive. However, others tend not to stand up to the chair, and you wonder how long your job is going to last.
  • The chair has a habit of walking into your office at any moment and expects you to drop whatever you’re doing to talk to him, sometimes for hours.
  • The chair insists you report your daily activities every day and raises questions every time you are out of the district.

Ground Rules
The relationship between a superintendent and the school board chair is a significant one. If the chair is overbearing or unsupportive, the superintendent is going to have a difficult time.

As I suggested in an earlier column on this topic (“Bullies in the Boardroom,” December 2006), bullies can only get away with aberrant behavior if you let them. When it is the chair, it is more difficult to deal with, but even more important.

Often the chair is acting in an improper manner, taking on tasks he or she has no business doing or pushing around the district, thus interfering with your ability to be the instructional leader.

You need to establish ground rules for all board members, the chair included. If the chair is getting in the way of your job, you need to take action. Failure to do so will make your life miserable, and more than likely reduce your tenure in that community.

You cannot win a battle with the board chair as long as the rest of the board allows such behavior. If the board seems supportive of the chair or indifferent, you may be looking for a new job sooner than later. If they are supportive of you, they need to make that clear to the chair. So what do you do?

Isolated Contact
I’d start by asking the chair to lunch (or dinner or just a cup of coffee). You need to explain how you want to work with the board and the chair, but that his or her style is interfering with your ability to lead the district. In fact, if the chair is acting in a way that puts the board in legal jeopardy (such as interfering in a personnel matter), you should explain how the chair may be doing something illegal and it is your job to enforce the law. Try to get him or her to realize you are all on the same team, but the operative word here is team.

If that goes nowhere, get the rest of the board involved. You work for the board of education, not the chair. You need to express your issues to the rest of the board. Talk frankly to the others, and explain there can be only one CEO of the district and they have chosen you to be it. Explain the ramifications of ignoring inappropriate behavior by the chair and the legal implications if he or she crosses the line. If you need outside help, call in your state school boards association to facilitate.

At times, the level of trust is so bad that you may fear the chair will misrepresent your conversations to the rest of the board or community. I know of at least one board chair who enjoyed intimidating the superintendent both physically and verbally. The superintendent finally made it clear to the board she would not meet with him unless a third party was present and ordered her staff to do the same. A witness makes it hard for the chair to act out or misrepresent conversations. The superintendent also could have told the board chair that if the behavior continued at board meetings she would request a police officer to attend the board meetings to ensure the safety of all present.

Another superintendent became frustrated when the board chair (who was retired and had lots of time on his hands) would just park himself in the superintendent’s office or another administrative office for hours. The superintendent finally told him he and his staff had work to do and he would only meet with the chair when an appointment was made and that the chair could only meet with staff when the superintendent approved that meeting. He followed this up with a memo to his staff and the board explaining his action and brought it up at the next board meeting. Fortunately, he convinced the rest of the board this was appropriate and they supported him. If they hadn’t, he was prepared to leave his job.

Open Lines
As far as reporting your daily activities, I know of several superintendents who have brought those issues to their boards and made it clear they can spend hours a day working for the children or hours a day reporting to the chair. It should be clear, again, what the board feels is appropriate, not the chair.

Dealing with a bully chair can be a terrible experience and often leads to a new job for the superintendent, but if you can work with the rest of the board, good things still can happen. Just do your best to keep lines of communication open with the board and try to keep the personality aspect of this issue out of the discussion.

Nick Caruso is senior staff associate for field services with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education in Wethersfield, Conn.