Board-Savvy Superintendent

A Fresh View of Board Development With Billy Cannaday

by Doug Eadie

The old-time view of the superintendent as the school district’s chief educational and administrative officer who keeps at arm’s length from the school board’s governing activities — essentially presenting the board with the information it needs to make sound decisions but not getting intimately involved in the board’s governing process — is on the wane.

The reason is simple: Experience has taught that making effective governing judgments and decisions depends on close, constant board-superintendent cooperation. Indeed, in my experience, the superintendents whose boards govern at the highest level, making a real difference in school district affairs, are the ones who see themselves as occupying a hybrid position — part board member and part administrator — and as active collaborators in governing.

Virginia’s new superintendent of public instruction Billy Cannaday, who previously served as superintendent of the Chesterfield County and Hampton Roads school districts in Virginia, was never captive to the traditional notion of a firewall separating the superintendent’s administrative function from the school board’s policy-making role. Rather, during his 12 years as superintendent in two of the state’s largest school districts, Cannaday has been a leader in developing his school boards’ capacity to govern.

He shared his thinking recently about the role of the superintendent in board development.

Beyond Policy
Q: Tell me what “governing” means to you in practical terms. What does a school board do when it governs?

Cannaday: Not too many years back, you’d hear governing described vaguely as policy making. I learned early in my administrative career that making and updating policies, which are basically rules to govern district operations, couldn’t really keep a school board busy.

So we’ve got to have a more nuts-and-bolts definition if we want to develop a board into a more effective governing body. I’ve thought a lot about this, and what I’ve concluded is that governing work basically consists of a school board’s making judgments and decisions about very concrete governing “products” and “documents.” For example, when a board adopts the annual or biennial budget for the district, it makes a really high-level decision about a very concrete product, the budget. And when a board reviews an educational or financial performance report, it makes judgments about how well things are going educationally or financially. That’s governing when the rubber meets the road.

Q: So how do you go about developing a school board’s governing capacity?

Cannaday: In my experience as a superintendent, board capacity building involves (1) working with your board to come up with a crystal-clear, detailed description of your board’s governing responsibilities (what I call the “board governing mission”); (2) developing the structure that will support making governing judgments and decisions; and (3) mapping out processes for involving the board in key governing functions, such as planning and performance monitoring.

The CEO’s Role
Q: As a superintendent, what role did you play in developing your board’s governing capacity?

Cannaday: Very simply, I considered myself the “chief board capacity builder” who was primarily accountable for my board’s becoming a more effective governing body. Of course, I couldn’t do the job alone. My board members wanted to become more effective and demonstrated a willingness to devote significant time to becoming better at governing. I had no choice but to play the lead role.

Q: Would you be more specific about that?

Cannaday: Early in 2006, my board in Chesterfield County traveled pretty far on the board development road, adopting a formal plan for spelling out the board’s primary governing responsibilities and putting in place a new structure that addressed operations (monitoring), high interest projects (external relationships) and a future focus (planning). These critical board development steps were the culmination of a seven-month process that my school board and I initiated, beginning with an intensive day-long governance work session in July 2005.

In preparation for that work session, I found a consultant with a powerful publication record and lots of hands-on governance experience to facilitate the session. I worked closely with the consultant in developing the agenda, and I reviewed the consultant’s follow-through report line by line before sending it along to the board with my recommendations. I was anything but a bystander in the process!

Q: Did you get any static from board members about your playing such an assertive role?

Cannaday: None. But keep in mind that being assertive didn’t mean being the publicly visible leader of the process. I played my leadership role largely behind the scenes, working with my board chair and the consultant in getting ready for and following up on two intensive board work sessions. Board members led the sessions themselves, and as a member of the public you wouldn’t have seen me as the driver of the board development process.

Doug Eadie is president of Doug Eadie & Co., 3 Sunny Point Terrace, Oldsmar, FL 34677. E-mail: