Board-Savvy Superintendent

Looking at Mavericks as One of Them

by David E. Lee

Having spent 10 years as a superintendent, I thought I would make an excellent school board member when I left the superintendency because I knew the ins and outs of a school system. So when opportunity presented itself, I got elected to a six-year term (of course, not in the system where I was superintendent).

Reality differed much from my perception. I had squabbled with board of education members for years, but now I was one of them, traveling in their circles, going to the same meetings and hearing their complaints about their superintendent. Now I’m on the inside of the things boards say about their superintendents. Unfortunately, most remarks aren’t very positive.

How can two entities with supposedly the same mission drift so far apart in philosophy and outlook? After I became one of them, I began to see firsthand how cracks occur in relationships.

Transparent Motives
A few years ago, in my role as a university faculty member, I was leading board training for an urban district with five school board members. I started the meeting off by asking, “Who knows what constitutes a good board member?” One elderly gentleman looked me squarely in the eye and replied, “Two more people to think just like me.”

Wow, he was right. School board work is about control and who influences whom. Leadership is influence, and superintendents who don’t have influence in their communities are very vulnerable. Maverick board members often attack at will. Unfortunately, many superintendents are only one vote away from losing their jobs. Once some of your members get a taste of power, they can wreak havoc on your system and your career.

Maverick board members aren’t hard to detect. Their danger comes in their unwillingness to be a part of the team even though they try to disguise their intentions. Their motives are transparent. Fellow board members are the only ones who can rein them back in, not the superintendent. Have you seen these members?

Lone Rangers. These board members have all the answers and think they are on a personal mission to cure all the ills of the system. They take no prisoners. They aren’t interested in consensus. They think they are always right.

Showstoppers. These board members constantly act up in meetings just to get attention. They make off-the-wall comments in public that come back to haunt a district. Showstoppers only care about being the center of attention, good or bad. They thrive on it, encouraged by their constituents. The media loves mavericks and this often reinforces this type of behavior.

High Water Supporters. These people offer blind support to the superintendent and get sideways with other board members. Dissatisfaction with the supportive member can lead to dissatisfaction with the leader as a way to punish the fellow board member. Superintendents love these supporters, but they often can contribute to their downfall.

Secret Agents. They’re always looking for skeletons to uncover. They get tips from disgruntled district employees insinuating a conspiracy or something illegal happening. Secret agents encourage explosive behavior, springing surprises at meetings. Accuracy does not matter. It’s the effect it causes.

Ax Grinders. These members make no bones about their intentions — to get rid of the superintendent or a principal or to close a school. They come on with a vengeance and never let up until they are satisfied. They require a burnt offering.

Crowd Pleasers. They just go with the flow and try to please everybody. They shudder at even the hint of having to take a stand. They can’t be counted on to call other mavericks to task — too big a risk for them. Forget about their support if a hint of controversy is involved in a decision. They will tell you before a meeting they support your proposals, but if even one other member withdraws support, they too will bail out.

Back to Basics
It is unfortunate that many board meetings are becoming the biggest show in town with mavericks trying to make a name for themselves and furthering their political career. And not to alarm you, but your board members are attending meetings that are encouraging them to get more and more involved in the day-to-day operations of the school system.

Good governing boards help their superintendents deal with maverick members and if your supportive members don’t step forward to assist, your life may be hell. Focus on teamwork and, remember, many of your school board members don’t understand everything you tell them, but they wouldn’t admit that to you.

I don’t see immediate relief ahead, so make sure you are all on the same page and encourage open communication with your board.

Unfortunately, many superintendents have such short tenures that they don’t have time to build influence. Find someone who does to assist you. Remember, these mavericks will change only if someone of influence intervenes.

David Lee is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Southern Mississippi, Box 5027, Hattiesburg, MS 39406. E-mail: david.e.lee@usm.edu. He spent six years on a local school board in Mississippi after 10 years as a superintendent in Louisiana.