Guest Column

Why I Need Micromanaging Board Members

by MARK E. LICHTE

In many small school systems, the district administrator may be the only person who is certified or licensed. Our district doesn’t have a business manager, a director of transportation or a food service director. The difficulty of understanding and attending to the multitude of tasks can be overwhelming, and sometimes it is not in the best interests of the community.

So the shadow over my shoulder from time to time comes not only from teachers, students and parents but also from the school board. I am frequently asked by colleagues in other places, “Is the board micromanaging you?” My typical reaction always had been a perfunctory “No.”

After completing my third year as superintendent of a 320-student district, I am beginning to feel differently about the board of education’s role. Board members do have an obligation to share their expertise as representatives of the community. In fact, each member brings a perspective and, more often than not, a positive one about educational policy. The myth of micromanaging in small schools is a reality, and as I see it, a necessity.

Small schools need to rely on each board member’s expertise to broaden the knowledge base of the governing board as a whole and to enhance the reach of a central office that is limited in human and fiscal resources. In our small district, we rely on the attributes of our five board members in the following ways:

* Board president: rich background in construction and past board issues.

* Vice president: vast experience in issues related to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as well as safety expertise.

* Treasurer: experience with accounting and financial matters.

* Secretary: business background and understanding of accountability.

* Member at large: a retired teacher.

Each board member not only brings a close understanding of community needs but a perspective that a tiny central-office staff does not have. School districts today are under tremendous pressure to conform to the many federal, Department of Public Instruction and local mandates. Single administrators, backed by a handful of front-office personnel, lack the expertise to be on top of their game on every issue and need that arise in a school system.

During the past two years, we have experienced a problem relating to our indoor air quality. When meeting with our environmental consultant, our board member who has OSHA and safety experience has been instrumental in developing viable solutions.

Board members also have played a hands-on role in our budgeting process. In the 1998-99 school year, our budget for audit fees was $18,000--more than twice the cost we felt it should be for auditing a district budget of about $3.5 million. Our board treasurer, collaborating with our newly hired bookkeeper, took on this cost issue, and last year our audit fee dropped to $8,000.

In addition, the treasurer’s expertise in accounting gave me a framework for revamping our entire budgeting process. Shared expertise has made a major difference.

For me, the hands-on involvement of a governing board with a rich array of experiences and knowledge has been invaluable to the effective functioning of the school district. Does this mean I am micromanaged? Again, I would state, “No, but we do have shared problem solving.” To be a successful administrator, I rely first on the skills of my supervisors; yet I believe board governance is a natural offshoot that has proven to be beneficial to my work.

Mark Lichte is the district administrator of the Stone Bank School District, W337 N6691 Stonefield Way, Oconomowoc, WI 53066. E-mail: mlichte@stonebank.k12.wi.us