Feature

Board Duty in Retirement

Why, in my mid-70s, I opted to serve on a local school board and why other retired superintendents should consider doing so by Richard H. Goodman

Last year, at age 75, I decided to run for election to the five-member regional school board that represents the voters in the four-town New Hampshire seacoast. A resident of Hampton, where the 1,400-pupil Winnacunnet High School is located, I was encouraged by an 18-year veteran board member who decided to seek election to the state legislature.

I had been superintendent of a five-town area in New Hampshire and in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, Mass., and had led many workshops for school boards and superintendents during my 20 years at the University of New Hampshire and 10 years with the New England School Development Council.

Had I served as a superintendent in the district, I would have quickly said “no” to the invitation to run as I strongly believe people should not serve on a school board in a district where they have worked as superintendent. But that was not the case, and being a school board member was the one job in public education I had never experienced, so I threw my hat in the ring. I campaigned in all four towns and defeated my opponent, a former town official. My entrée into the world of school board member began.

Voice of Experience

What value could I, as a retired superintendent, bring to the Winnacunnet School Board? Well, I had worked with school boards for dozens of years and through that experience had seen several effective board-superintendent relationships and a few ineffective ones. I identified four key areas in which I could help the school board work with the superintendent while focusing its mission to improve student achievement and prepare all students for success in life:

  • Setting goals,
  • Delegating administrative matters,
  • Fostering trust and support, and
  • Conducting board meetings.

A word of caution before we examine these four areas: Retired superintendents bring much experience to this position, but they must work collaboratively with all board members and the superintendent to strengthen education in the district. It can’t be — and shouldn’t be — a one-person show. It is the board, acting at a legally called meeting, that has the power and authority to govern.

Setting Goals

Several years ago, I led a workshop during which the school board adopted all the goals that each board member advocated without discussion or input from the superintendent. Many boards and administrators function this way, establishing multiple goals and objectives for a school year and then struggling to keep them all in the forefront. As a result, they spend more time juggling than actually doing.

When I became a member of the Winnacunnet School Board, I encouraged our board to discuss individual board members’ goal recommendations as a group and then adopt three to five goals that all members supported. At our first goal-setting workshop, we agreed to four preliminary goals, then “slept on it” to give the administration time to get feedback from the staff and to give us time to be certain the goals reflected our top priorities. The response was positive, so with the support of the superintendent, the board adopted the following four goals at a meeting early in the school year:

 

  • Require every student to be ready for post-secondary education at graduation;

 

  • Improve Winnacunnet High School community relations;

 

  • Develop a responsible Winnacunnet High School budget for each school year; and

 

  • Support a Winnacunnet High School wellness program to address drug and alcohol issues and to promote the physical and emotional well-being of its students.

Why these four goals? First, we wanted the staff to do everything possible to eliminate dropouts and prepare every student for success in life. Approximately 80 percent of Winnacunnet graduates go on to some form of higher education, and we wanted every graduate to be fully prepared for post-high school education.

Second, our school board has one member from each of the four towns and one person elected at large. Communication to the residents in each of the four towns had not been effective so the school board agreed we needed to address this issue.

Third, the budget is scrutinized carefully by a budget committee and then goes before the voters in each of the towns. Budget approval is key to the achievement of the other goals.

Fourth, the board agreed that our success in achieving Goal No. 1 relates directly to the health of all students, and we wanted to give a strong message to staff, parents, students and all citizens that student wellness is a top priority.

These goals were concise, focused specifically on student achievement, and left the details of district management to the superintendent. We agreed to review our progress at each board meeting.

Delegating Matters

As a superintendent, I appreciated working with a board that sets goals and policies focused on improving student achievement and left the management and administration of the school district to me. As a board member, I urged my colleagues to do the same, but that was not always easy. Many states have laws that require a school board to approve the appointment of certified staff and to take action on other management issues.

In many school districts, selection of coaches is a hot topic. Our board adopted a policy delegating the selection, evaluation and re-appointment of coaches to the administration, with the superintendent having the final say.

Another way to address personnel matters is to use a consent agenda. Our superintendent sends the board meeting agenda packet to each board member a week prior to our meeting. The packet includes information about the personnel and management matters that require a board vote, all under the consent agenda section of the meeting agenda.

Should any board members wish to discuss any consent agenda items, they notify the superintendent as soon as possible and the item is removed from the consent agenda prior to the meeting. The superintendent notifies other board members of this action. At the board meeting, the consent agenda is voted on and any items board members want to discuss are considered separately.

Fostering Trust

As a retired superintendent, I have seen first-hand the importance of trust and support among board members and between the board and the superintendent. One important way I strengthened the work of our board and its relationship with the superintendent was by advocating board-superintendent retreats.

These retreats, held three or four times during the year, do wonders for developing a healthy relationship among board members and between the board and the superintendent. The retreat does not include discussions of school board business. It is held for the sole purpose of strengthening the board-superintendent leadership team. The result is trust, collaboration and a more productive board.

That’s not to say this trust and support won’t be tested throughout the year. In a perfect world, all members of our board would agree on all matters put before us, but we all know that’s not always the case. We had some split votes last year, and it was difficult for some board members to deal with being in the minority after having argued passionately for their side.

I was in that position on a controversial issue regarding what had been a compulsory senior seminar course for all grade 12 students. I shared my opinion and argued my case — and lost. But our board had established a sense of trust, commitment and support, and my colleagues knew I would uphold the board decision without reservation.

Each of the five members of the Winnacunnet School Board understands the overarching principle that it is the board that governs and that we govern as a cohesive unit. The same must be true of the superintendent as well. Just as every board member upholds a board position, so does the superintendent — even in those rare instances when the board does not accept his or her recommendation. The board and superintendent must show a united front.

Conducting Meetings

It is easy for me, as a retired superintendent turned board member, to keep what’s best for students front and center. I am in the unique position of having participated in board meetings as a superintendent and as a board member and I try to keep that perspective and share it when necessary.

In our district, the superintendent and board chair prepare the monthly meeting agenda. While any board member may suggest agenda items, the final decision rests in the hands of the superintendent and board chair.

The superintendent and board chair use the four board goals adopted by the Winnacunnet School Board as their focus when discussing potential agenda items. When they also keep the key areas discussed earlier — goals, delegation, and trust and support — in the forefront, the final board agenda reflects the true mission of the board: to improve student achievement.

Valuable Resource

When retired superintendents take their seats on the school board, they can be major forces for strengthening the public schools. As I reflect on my first 18 months on the school board, I realize that the intellectual understanding I had as a superintendent and a workshop leader for board-superintendent teams has been coupled with an emotional understanding of the role of the board member. Those emotions reflect my sense of trust, commitment and collaboration.

I recognize that even if I hold a minority position on an issue, it is the school board that governs, not individual members. To truly fulfill our goal of preparing students for success in school and in life, all stakeholders — board members, superintendents, administrators, staff, parents and the community — must unite behind that common goal, roll up our sleeves and get the job done.

Although I am no longer a superintendent, I still have much to offer our public school system. Serving as a school board member not only gives me a different perspective, it also allows me to share my experience and knowledge with those who make students their priority.

Richard Goodman, a retired superintendent and former executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards and School Administrators associations, is a consultant with the New England School Development Council. He can be reached at 182 Exeter Road, Hampton, NH 03842. E-mail: dgoodman@rcn.com