Situational Governance: A Continuum of Board Types

by Daniel A. Domenech

An effective and stable school district requires a superintendent and board who work well together. Such collaboration builds positive momentum and public confidence. It also minimizes the turnover that can slow district progress, encourage “flavor of the year” reform agendas and impede academic achievement.

Too seldom school governance reflects a less-than-perfect alignment between the needs and capabilities of the superintendent and board. Even when relations appear to be good, the parties may trample on each other’s roles or wander aimlessly in the policy wilderness.

This fundamental relationship can be strengthened by the superintendent understanding the situation and adopting the governance style that fits the current conditions.

Four Scenarios

My model, which I call situational governance, is best thought of as a continuum. Where a policy body sits on that continuum depends on a number of factors, especially the superintendent’s experience and the board’s level of confidence in that person. This situation is not static and will change over time.

Four situations in my own experience as a superintendent in New York and Virginia illustrate the continuum.

• A micromanaging board.

I first became a superintendent in Long Island’s Deer Park district at the tender age of 32. The job was replete with challenges as the district was running a deficit and facing labor problems and performance issues. I was inexperienced, and the board was more confident in my potential than in my short-term ability. Wisely, the members remained actively engaged, meeting weekly all year long for five hours at a time until I gained the necessary experience.

They were micromanaging, which in this situation was necessary and desirable. Gradually, my experience grew as did their confidence in me.

• A supportive board.

Three years later I accepted the superintendency of the South Huntington School District, also on Long Island. Here, conditions were very different. This district and community were extremely stable--board members had served at least 10 and as many as 21 years. I brought some experience, and my track record had earned the board’s confidence.

At the same time, South Huntington was a much larger and higher profile district, and I was less experienced working at this level. The same situation often occurs when a long-time district employee is promoted up through the ranks, eventually moving to the top job. The board has demonstrated confidence by hiring the individual, but the individual lacks experience in actually doing the job.

Given these circumstances, the board took on a supportive role, nurturing their new hire and recognizing I would make mistakes. Over the next 13 years, I grew significantly as an individual, administrator and educator. As I did so, I needed less board support.

• A wait-and-see board.

Eventually, I accepted a position in Suffolk County, N.Y., that had been considered the plum superintendent’s job in New York but became less desirable when my predecessor was involved in a financial scandal that shook the board’s composure.

Thus while I arrived as a very experienced superintendent with 16 years under my belt, the board had been badly burned and was unusually sensitive. Not surprisingly, it adopted a wait-and-see attitude about me, assuming a posture of guarded optimism.

Later, after we had worked together for a while, the board relaxed and turned increasing responsibility over to me. One of the most effective methods for accomplishing this was to develop joint goals with the board so the members had a sense of ownership over what I was doing as superintendent. This put the board members more at ease.

Such behavior often happens when an experienced individual moves into a new position. The board keeps its hand on the tiller until its comfort level rises. In this situation, even the most experienced superintendent must bring the board along, recognizing its uncertainty and earning its confidence.

Changing Conditions

• A mature board.

My final experience illustrates the ideal. In 1998, I became superintendent in Fairfax County, Va. I arrived after spending two decades as a superintendent and as president of AASA. The board was successful and mature. Thus, the superintendent was experienced and the board, having sought me out, had a high degree of confidence in its new leader. The result was a very successful partnership, with no micromanagement.

The point is to understand the situation in which you as superintendent find yourself and to adopt the governance style that fits the current conditions. There is nothing wrong with being where you are. Just be aware of it and how others will likely behave as a result. Recognize also that conditions will change as you as superintendent gain experience and as the board gains confidence.

Finally, there are additional ways to strengthen the board-superintendent relationship. For example, you can set goals to help the superintendent and board head in the same direction; encourage leadership training, a skill that superintendents and board members alike can learn; emphasize data-driven decision making, which while fairly new to educators is a vital concept; and aim for distributive leadership, which is a form of collaborative, shared experience useful in building the superintendent/school board team.

Dan Domenech is a senior vice president of national urban markets at McGraw-Hill Education, 2 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121.