Board-Savvy Superintendent

What Comprises an Award-Winning Board?

by Stephen L. Kleinsmith

What is it like to work with a board of education that has been named the Outstanding School Board of the Year in its state twice since 2000? I can honestly say the past five years I’ve worked with my school board have been nothing short of spectacular.

That’s not to say the seven members of my board in Nixa, Mo., and I always agree on every issue we confront or that we are all cut from the same cloth. But we always have presented a united front when it comes to what matters most: students.

The keys to our strong superintendent-board relationship are effective communication and earned trust. If we are to achieve common goals and apply accountability and stewardship, we must trust each other to do a good job and respect each others’ abilities to fulfill the responsibilities of office.

Like a marriage, we work to improve our relationship, nourishing forgiveness, understanding, cooperation and honesty. When we speak of each other’s work in public, it is only with praise and support.

One way the board members and I have developed our interpersonal relationship is through our bi-annual retreat. These contribute to strengthened lines of communication as we address our problems and solutions jointly.

We also are committed as a superintendent and board to joint learning and professional development. Each year I accompany the entire board to the Missouri School Boards Association conference, which contributes to the prevailing culture in our school governance. (I attend AASA national conferences for my own professional learning needs.) Whenever appropriate and possible, the board and I attend local functions together as a team.

Established Culture

Whenever a vacancy on the board is publicly announced, the board president, who has been on the Nixa board for more than 20 years, reaches out to those expressing interest in running to share with candor the expectations of board service. This ensures that only those community members committed to work for the common good of children in our schools pursue a candidacy.

When a newcomer is voted to the board, we provide an extensive orientation that’s planned and run by board members. The orientation is not expensive and the long-term payoff is worth the resources we do spend. Typically we share information from AASA, NSBA and our state school board association, which when effectively presented by veteran board members and the superintendent, results in greater preparation. New board members also learn about our own district’s strategic plan, giving them a jump start. Further, a veteran board member is assigned as a mentor to a newcomer, offering rides to board functions and background details about agenda items.

These high expectations contribute to a culture that enables new members to focus on their responsibilities from Day 1. We have overcome the conditions that plague other boards--constant turnover and the lack of education background among newcomers. In Nixa, board service is considered one of the highest civic commitments you can make.

A United Front

Our board of education does not manage the schools. As representatives of the larger society, they share with and interpret to the school district the values of the community. These interpretations form the strategies that dictate the actions of administrators, teachers and other staff in our 4,500-student system.

We subscribe to the Pareto Principle, which suggests that effort focused on the top 20 percent of important issues equates to 80 percent return on that investment. We get maximum results when we focus our work on the elements of our comprehensive school improvement plan.

The best way to describe relationships in our school community is with the slogan, “We are all in this together.” The welfare of and impact on the children are the focus of every decision. It is too easy to lose sight of what matters most.

We keep each other informed at all times. Board members should never be placed in the embarrassing position of not knowing about school programs and current trends that affect public education nor should the superintendent be surprised at a public meeting with a question from a board member that could have been addressed earlier and in private.

One simple technique to ensure open communication is to provide summaries of happenings in the district, current legislation, trends in education and recent research reports in board packets. In addition to bi-weekly e-mail updates to the full board, I place phone calls or send special e-mails to let board members know about a relevant court decision, legislative action, resignation of a key employee or a serious student issue--anything with the potential of making the evening news or the morning newspaper.

Finally, we are open, honest and forthright in our relationship. There should never be secrets between the board and the superintendent. Each party must state what it believes and not what he or she thinks the other might want to hear. It is okay to disagree, just don’t be disagreeable in the process. In the end, your policy recommendations and decisions will reflect integrity, sincerity and devotion to the lofty missions of our public schools.

I also might add that it helps if you have the hope of an optimist, the courage of a hero, the wisdom of a Solomon, the gentleness of a dove, the patience of Job, the grace of God and the persistence of the devil.

Stephen Kleinsmith is superintendent of the Nixa R-II School District, 205 North St., Nixa, MO 65714. E-mail: skleinsmith@mail.nixa.k12.mo.us