Board-Savvy Superintendent

The Cornerstone Relationship Between CEO and Board President

by Dale Kimball

Trust is the cornerstone to the success of any relationship. A key to the building of trust between the superintendent and the board president is ensuring that the board president is never blindsided by a issue or decision in public that might trigger a controversy or create a bigger problem. The board president should never find out about a critical incident from someone in the community. The board president should find out from the superintendent, and the board president then should decide how to best inform the rest of the board.

The superintendent and the board president must have open lines of communication and meet regularly in between formal meetings or board work sessions. A well-informed board president can be the superintendent’s best supporter.

Agenda Setting
One key aspect to building the board president/superintendent relationship is to plan the board meeting agenda together. Each month during the week prior to the board meeting, I meet with the board president to set the agenda for the upcoming meeting. We each suggest items to be placed on the meeting agenda, and we discuss the implications of those items and where they should be placed on the agenda.

Every superintendent needs to remember that the board of education meeting is just that—it is the board’s meeting, not the administration’s. Thus it is the board president who should conduct the meeting. The board president, not the superintendent, ought to be responsible for recognizing citizens and other board members who wish to speak. The superintendent and administration should provide encouragement and support to the board president by supplying information as needed.

During our board meetings, a question is sometimes asked of the board president regarding curriculum or personnel or some other area that only the superintendent or another school administrator can properly answer. In this case, when asked to do so by the board president, we try to help. If the superintendent or another administrator is unable to answer the question fully, we promise to get an answer to the board as soon as possible.

Soon after each board meeting, the superintendent and board president should discuss what transpired. The discussion should consider any follow-up on board actions required of the superintendent and other district staff, as well as an appraisal of the effectiveness of the meeting. Suggestions for improving any of these areas should wait for this “post-game” analysis and never should be raised openly during the meeting itself unless prompted to do so by the board president.

Discussions about problems with board members who are not performing their job in a fitting manner also are appropriately handled by the superintendent and board president. These can be helpful in channeling the board in a positive direction.

If a board member in our district takes a public action that “ambushes” the superintendent, another administrator or the board president during the board meeting with an unexpected matter requiring research, the board president will discuss proper protocol with that board member after the meeting.

The wise superintendent treads lightly when asking the board president to intervene in such an instance. Even if the board president is a superintendent supporter, it is important to remember that board members are elected officials and that today’s board president may not be the leader in the immediate future.

Full Attention
The board president/superintendent partnership must not be wrought at the expense of the superintendent’s relationship with the rest of the board. While the relationship with the board president is critical, you must remember that the superintendent serves the whole board.

The superintendent/board president relationship must be seen by the rest of the board as a means for working with the entire board, not as a strategy for excluding them. The best way to work with the entire board is to recognize and treat all members equally. This means all information crucial to running the school district that is shared with one board member should be shared with all board members.

One way to accomplish this is through weekly written information distributed to the school board. I write a Board Update to the board every week. In it I inform the board about areas of interest in the following categories: finance and budget, personnel, curriculum, policy and governance, school law, testing and NCLB, new building construction, school board association business and miscellaneous items.

When the school board and superintendent are out of sync—or worse yet at odds with each other—the importance of a positive superintendent and board president relationship is amplified. When positive board/superintendent relationships are slipping, the whole district suffers and students and staff live with the negative consequences.

Dale Kimball is superintendent of the Pennfield School District, 8587 Pennfield Road, Battle Creek, MI 49017. E-mail: kimballd@pennfield.k12.mi.us. The author acknowledges the help of Michael Jazzar, an assistant professor of educational leadership at University of North Carolina at Charlotte.