Board-Savvy Superintendent

Setting the Right Direction

by Nicholas D. Caruso Jr.

As I visit school boards across Connecticut, I’ve noticed that many of the roads make no sense to me. The routes that started out as Indian trails or game trails, following the original topography of the land, may once have served residents well. But time and modernization have created new destinations and the original routes no longer lead where travelers need to go.

A good set of directions is essential, especially once Daylight Savings Time kicks in. More than once I’ve floundered about in the dark searching for the location of a board meeting.

I recently discovered some great inexpensive mapping software. With it, I can type in a starting point and the destination, and the software plots out my route for me. In an instant, the “expert” tells me what roads to take, where to turn and how long it will take me to get there. I can program it to take the scenic route, the fastest route or the shortest route. If I don’t like a particular route, I can direct the software to re-work the directions to better meet my expectations. It points out landmarks to help me recognize my location, and it tells me how much it will cost to get there and how many miles I’ll travel on the way. It has really been terrific.

A Mapping Effort

It occurred to me that this is similar to the leadership style that school boards should aspire to. Boards should focus on the destination, an d let the professional staff help them get there in the best possible way. Superintendents and their staff members will plot out the trip, developing a list of resources necessary to complete the journey. Their research will point out the landmarks and the hazards to avoid, and when one appears, they will have the insight to work around it.

As superintendent, you can help guide the board in this mapping effort. Start out by asking the board to help set the direction of the school district by adopting district goals. From those goals, develop your goals and require your staff to also set goals related to the district goals. Develop action plans and report to the board the road map.

I recently worked with a school district that had a wonderful goal-setting process. First, all administrators were asked to identify what they thought the most critical needs of the district were. These were collected by a steering committee of administrators and compiled into categories.

The board conducted a retreat with the administrative team, including the superintendent and assistant superintendent and with the board chair and one other board member present as observers. The data were shared at that time to stimulate discussion.

My job was to help them establish three to five critical district needs. My challenge was getting them to focus on statement of the problems, not the solutions. At the end of the afternoon the retreat had spawned five need statements.

Staff committees were formed to study each area. The committees developed rationales as to why they felt these were the most critical issues. They also developed some examples of possible action plans to address each need.

Visible Goals

The board of education then held a goal-setting retreat that started with a report from the administrative team. The need statements were reported, the rationales explained and a brief description of possible action was given. It was made clear from the outset that the board was being asked to come to consensus on the issues, and my job was to keep them from focusing on solutions.

The board debated the issues and, after a very rewarding session with input from the staff, developed six district goals — adding a communications goal they felt was critical to the success of the other five, as well as a preamble to help address other important concerns of the board not specifically addressed by the goals. I thought they did a terrific job of setting direction for the district.

As superintendent, it is important for you to make sure the goals are not lost after they are created. Ensure the board is aware of your district goals at all times. I strongly recommend that district goals be printed on every agenda and that you should focus on the district goals as part of your superintendent’s report at every meeting.

While boards make numerous decisions, try to focus their attention on the destination. When board meetings are focused on the mundane, ask yourself (and the board) if a policy can be written that will give insight and direction to a particular issue so that the superintendent and other administrators can start to make those decisions, rather than losing sight of the real destination.

Nick Caruso, a former school board member, is senior staff associate for field services, Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, 81 Wolcott Hill Road, Wethersfield, CT 06109. E-mail:


One Board’s Goals

These goals were developed using the process described in this column.

The _____ Public Schools shall provide a comprehensive education that addresses the needs of the whole child by:

Developing a cohesive districtwide, long-term plan with accompanying procedures for assessing the plan;

Improving student performance in literacy and numeracy;

Providing a systemic, ongoing process of professional development to provide skills and strategies for improving student learning;

Requiring students to come to school regularly, be well behaved and prepared to learn; and

Enlisting the support of parents, community leaders and the community in accomplishing the mission of the district.