Board-Savvy Superintendent

Curing the Ownership Deficit Syndrome

by Doug Eadie

Superintendents usually do a fine job of preparing documents for their boards by paying close attention to detail. They are masters of finished staff work. Reports are not only meticulously crafted, they also are transmitted to the board far enough in advance to allow for careful review.

However, despite these well-intended efforts, many board members are anything but appreciative. Over time, they have grown restive, frustrated and frequently angry. This can be a dangerous situation for superintendents.

Although boards are a precious asset for your school district, a frustrated and dissatisfied board can be a lethal beastie. At best, unhappy boards are more difficult to work with, often tending to second-guess and nit-pick in dealing with routine matters. At worst, a dissatisfied board will sever the relationship with its superintendent. If you are a truly board-savvy superintendent, you won’t sit back and watch your working relationship with the board erode as frustrated board members turn into harsh critics and eventually enemies.

Ownership Deficit
Cultivating feelings of ownership among your school board members is one of the most powerful ways you can build a healthy, productive and enduring working relationship with your board. You can turn your board members into owners by involving them creatively and appropriately in actually shaping the most important governing products that you expect them to take action on, such as the annual budget or a policy statement. Merely sending them finished staff work they can only thumb through will produce non-owners.

This isn’t to say that your board members can or should be involved in-depth in helping to shape every product that you will eventually send to them for approval. Many action items on a board agenda are too routine to merit much board attention. But as a board-savvy superintendent, you can help your board pick and choose carefully, identifying the items deserving intensive board attention and making sure the process and structure are in place to handle more intensive board involvement.

Board-savvy superintendents employ two highly effective vehicles for involving board members so as to build feelings of ownership: well-designed board standing committees and strategic planning retreats.

Standing Committees
I observed a school board meeting not long ago that was committee-driven, in that all reports and action items were introduced and explained by committee chairs, who clearly behaved like owners of their recommendations, not as passive recipients of finished staff work. Committee members were well-prepared to discuss complex governing issues because of their in-depth involvement at the committee level before the board meeting. The superintendent and senior administrators participated in the deliberations, of course, but committee chairs took the lead in both addressing the concerns of their colleagues and seeking board action. This was a vivid demonstration of ownership in action.

By contrast, not long before, I had seen a superintendent recommend a policy revision to her board, which proceeded to pick it to pieces in an equally vivid display of the-board-as-an-audience phenomenon.

Not all ownership is equal. You want your board members to own their governing work, not your administrative work. Therefore committees should correspond to the broad governing functions of the board--namely planning and performance monitoring. Traditional, narrow silo committees corresponding to administrative and program areas rather than governing functions-- curriculum, athletics, buildings and grounds, for example--build ownership of the wrong functions and degrade the board as a governing body. Silo committees also encourage board meddling in administrative matters.

Planning Retreat
The strategic planning process has been called the gold standard for school board involvement in district affairs for three principal reasons: (1) the high stakes involved in dealing with strategic issues such as a seriously underperforming school, a projected revenue shortfall or escalating violence at athletic events; (2) the experience, knowledge, diverse perspectives and community ties that board members bring to strategic deliberations; and (3) the excitement and ego satisfaction that comes with involvement at the strategic level.

However, for board involvement in strategic planning to serve as a powerful ownership-building vehicle, it must come early in the process, before directions have been set and strategies formulated. A retreat is an ideal tool in this regard.

The most effective strategic planning retreats, in terms of their strategic outcomes and the degree of ownership they fostered, have shared certain key features.

• Involve board members in putting together the retreat design (the objectives, structure and agenda), often through an ad hoc retreat planning committee.

• Include as participants not only the board and superintendent but also senior administrators.

• Set aside at least a day, and more often 1½ to 2 days. Less than a day is a meeting, not a retreat.

• Focus on the open end of what I call the “strategic funnel.” This involves updating district values and vision statements, identifying and thoroughly discussing critical strategic issues facing the district and brainstorming possible initiatives to address the issues.

• Avoid making final decisions. Instead, build in a well-defined follow-through process for making decisions.

Doug Eadie is CEO of Doug Eadie and Co., 4375 Wheatland Way, Palm Harbor, FL 34685. E-mail: