Guest Column

Canine Breeds on the Board

by Tom Salter

Dogs are a big part of many of our lives. They are loyal, hardworking, loving and protective of those around them — you know, kind of like superintendents and school board members.

I hope you will forgive the analogy, but if board members were dogs, they would be a special breed: part Rottweiler, part Husky, part Australian Sheep Dog and part Saint Bernard.

For those in school district administration who may be new to working up close with school boards and even those who are getting a little long in the tooth, please consider my canine (or is it K-9?) comparisons and advice.

• Watch out for the yellow snow.
Huskies have been the lifeblood of the frozen north for centuries. They pull the sleds that transport people and things from town to town when the elements prohibit normal forms of transportation. The key is for all the dogs to pull as a team. Unless every member of the team is working to move the sled in the same direction, the sled goes nowhere and the dogs begin to fight among themselves.

It’s the same with a school district’s leadership team. If one member chooses to take a different path from the rest of the group, the best that can happen is that the rest of the team has to work harder to move in the direction most believe is best for the system. If there is a disagreement among several members, nothing gets done and the public loses faith. Board members must be clear in setting goals and superintendents must be focused and ready to move before someone yells “mush.”

• Beware of dog.
Guard dogs such as Rottweilers and German Shepherds are known for the ferocity with which they defend their charges. However, they are just as loving to those who mean no harm to the ones they defend.

Leadership teams need a little of that trait. Boards are charged with setting policies that ensure children are safe and get the best education possible. When a group or an individual attempts to hurt children or hamper the education process, the board — in support of the superintendent — should rise up and protect its charges.

• Three Dog Night.
When someone was stuck in the well, Lassie was there to get help. When a mountain man is stranded in the snow, his sled dog team keeps him warm. When a crisis hits a school system, the board is expected to react. But should they?

If the crisis was caused by a problem with board policy, yes. If the problem falls under the job description of the superintendent or staff, the answer is no. That is why board members pay him or her the “big kibble.”

• Working for a living.
Sheep dogs may be the hardest working breed in the world. They stay focused and ensure the flock is safe and moving in the right direction. They monitor for trouble and alert the shepherd when it arrives.

Good school boards do the same thing. They know their role and when the big bad wolf shows up, they confer with the superintendent. Not to tell him or her what to do, but to offer support and if necessary allocate funds for the bricks.

• Unless you’re the lead dog, the scenery never changes.
The school board as a team leads the school system. It is the board’s job to put together the policies and set the goals. It is not the board’s job to be the visible, vocal crusader trying to be recognized as the one to whom others turn when problems arise. Board members choose the destination but not the road to it. That is the role of the superintendent.

• Bone of contention.
Dogs are sometimes selfish. I have a very small dog at home who thinks he is a very big dog. Our other dog is a very big dog, but Shorty rules the yard and keeps his bones to himself. If the other dog steps on his turf or goes after his bone, the ruckus brings neighbors streaming out of their homes to see what is happening.

Unfortunately, the same happens with leadership teams. If one member decides another is trying to move in on his or her turf, the screaming and snarling brings everyone in to see what is happening, including the media. The community has faith in the schools only when its leaders are functioning as a unit.

• Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
Dogs that bite their masters are quickly put out of everyone’s misery. If board members are moody and grumpy at public meetings, constantly moaning and complaining to the news media that all is lost, you won’t have to listen to it for long.

It is important to do the job the public trusts us to perform and do so with our tails wagging. One reason dogs are considered our best friends is they always seem happy to see us and do their level best to satisfy our need for companionship. That is what we expect. What constituents expect from board members is people who are positive, who have no agenda other than to make schools better and who care about children.

Being the member of a school board is arguably one of the most difficult, frustrating and rewarding experiences in public service. When tempted to step outside of their appointed role, board members need only to consider our K-9 friends to keep themselves out of the doghouse.

Tom Salter is senior communication officer with the Montgomery Public Schools, 307 South Decatur St., Montgomery, AL 36104. E-mail: tom.salter@mps.k12.al.us. His column appeared originally in Alabama School Boards.