Strategies To Keep You and the Board Focused on Evaluation

Jack Dale, Superintendent, Fairfax County Public Schools

Jack Dale, Superintendent, Fairfax County Public Schools

Jack Dale

Linda and Randy are right. During the Superintendent evaluation, it is easy for a school board to lapse into discussions of leadership styles or what transpired in our most recent interactions. How do we ensure the board members step back and evaluate us on our more substantive work?

The first step is to ensure there are explicit school district performance expectations. These come out of the Coherent Governance or Policy Governance model. In my case, the Policy Governance model has explicit system performance expectations in our Student Achievement Goals and Operational Expectations. We report progress on the Goals and Operational Expectations throughout the school year and all executive summaries are included in my year end evaluation.

One of the Operational Expectations is Superintendent School Board Relations. This is where we manage the more “subjective” issues by being explicit about what the whole board and the superintendent expect from one another. Specific expectations include: 

  1. Maintain an ethical and harmonious working relationship with the entire Board. 
  2. Keep the Board informed on issues, needs, policies, and operation of the school system. 
  3. Encourage communication and cooperation between Board members and staff members so as to be responsive to concerns of Board members.
  4. Interpret, implement, and support Board policy to staff members and the public, including the implementation of Board priorities (goals) in budget planning and in all operational areas defined and monitored by the Board.
  5. Interpret needs of school personnel and students to the Board.

As I have worked with school boards over many years, I have garnered a few nuggets that may help keep evaluations on track to ensure expectations are met. Have multiple closed sessions on your evaluation during the school year. Don’t wait until the end of the school year for one final, summative evaluation, but rather schedule multiple formative evaluation discussions during the school year.

  • In these formative sessions, ask the school board to comment on the direction the school district is going in areas of evaluation – Student Achievement Goals and Operational Expectations. Have an open and frank discussion of strategies you are employing, challenges you are facing, and where you expect the district to be in the coming months. A dialogue on these issues can be very productive in managing the board’s expectations, while providing you insight on their perspectives.
  • School Boards tend to remember only the most recent issues and how you and staff dealt with them. With frequent closed sessions on your evaluation, you have the chance to broaden the discussion from a single, recent issue. If you can use questions about future direction and upcoming issues, the dialogue tends to be more productive.
  • If you have made a mistake, an error in judgment, or a decision that needs to be rectified, admit the error immediately and outline the steps you are taking to correct the situation. In fact, if there is tension brewing over some action you have taken, ask for a closed session to discuss the situation. Do not be afraid to admit a mistake – we are human – but follow the admission with specific actions you intend to take. You might even ask your board if there are additional actions they would recommend to ameliorate the situation.
  • There is usually a 3-6 month time lag between your work and the board’s acknowledgement of that work. Boards have their own network of information – from parents, community, unions, etc. – and there is typically a time lag between that information loop and the one you operate. Recognize the time lag and the timing or your midyear formative evaluation sessions. If you have made some changes or taken some major action, have covered the communication and public engagement needs, then waiting three months before scheduling a formative evaluation session will allow that session to be more productive. You will be able to focus on broader issues of your performance expectations.

Your year-end evaluation should not be a surprise to anyone. The dialogues and conversations you have throughout the school year should be viewed as formative assessments that just roll into the final summative assessment. That should be the goal for you and your school board.