Getting Clear About Directions

Linda J. Dawson and Randy Quinn, The Aspen Group International, LLC

Linda Dawson

Linda Dawson

Board members tend to reflect the societies that elect them. Communities never have been monolithic in their views of the world, but no one can deny that the social and political cacophony that sends elected school board members to the table is more divided than ever before. How can we expect boards to be populated with anything other than that same range of views, attitudes and philosophies?

As we have seen superintendents struggle with these shifting board dynamics, a couple of patterns have emerged. First: unanimous votes are becoming more and more rare; and second, many superintendents are expending enormous energy and effort to please every board member, regardless of how the board voted—or even if it failed to actually vote!

Let’s face facts. Every superintendent wants unanimous votes. There is something about every board member’s agreeing about an important issue that sends a strong message that there is no equivocation about this decision and there is no danger it will change next week. Superintendents and other senior administrators take comfort that such decisive action will not leave them dangling. They tend to fear that bold staff action following a split decision will alienate some members of the board, or that any action to gear up the organization following the vote could be wasted if the minority view becomes the majority when the next challenge hits.

In fact, we have seen superintendents agonize over split decisions, spending hours and days trying to figure out ways to bring the minority members over to the majority side, or fearing to move forward based on a “weak” vote. We have a message for such superintendents: get over it.

Accept the fact that you don’t work in the social and political environment you wish you could have: you work in the one you have. The differences between and among individual board members must be recognized and respected, to be sure, but a 3-2 or a 4-3 vote is no less official and binding than a unanimous vote.

Randy Quinn

Randy Quinn

Of course, this is not to suggest that the superintendent has no role to play in board dynamics. Good superintendents develop the best possible recommendations that have the strongest chance of gaining the votes of every board member. But a unanimous board vote is not the goal; making the best possible decision for students is. Student focus is what should drive administrative decision-making and - one would hope - board decision-making as well.

When is a Split a Divide?

Wise superintendents must recognize the difference between boards whose members are chronically split, usually along political lines, and those whose members occasionally cast split votes based upon clear philosophical differences. Every board sometimes will face an issue that some members simply cannot bring themselves to support, based on a deeply held set of personal values that run in the opposite direction. These are the circumstances that give creative superintendents the best opportunities to lead and work hard to gain every member’s vote—still recognizing that unanimity may not be possible.

The chronically split board, the one whose members’ votes are predictably divided, presents a different leadership challenge for superintendents. Most superintendents endeavor to work with every member of the board, regardless of whether they are in the majority or minority, believing that each deserves to be treated with respect and courtesy.

Some superintendents take the opposite view, aligning themselves with a supportive segment of the board and ignoring or shunning the opposing element. We admit that in some situations where the split is so rancorous and nasty, such strategy can look quite attractive. Nevertheless, our best advice to superintendents is simply to play it straight with every member of the board.

Our point of clarity? This problem of an entrenched split is more a board problem than it is a superintendent problem. The superintendent doesn’t work for individual members of the board, or for majority or minority segments of the board. The superintendent works for the whole board, a legal entity that sometimes acts unanimously, sometimes not. The best way we know for a superintendent to get into deep trouble with the board is to take a position between a chronically split board. Majorities can become minorities and vice versa.

Let the board deal with board issues. Board hazards still may limit the superintendent’s future, but wouldn’t you rather lose a job for doing the right things right than to lose it because of game playing with board factions?

Some Suggestions for Survival

  • Take the board at its word. If a majority of the board votes, the board has spoken. The 4-3 vote is just as official and binding as a unanimous vote. Organize staff and other resources as vigorously as you would if the vote had been unanimous. Anything less will be admitting that a minority of the board really is driving staff action.
  • Treat every member equally. Superintendents sometimes don’t like the way certain board members act or vote, but they are duly elected members of the employing board, and each member deserves the same information and courtesy from the superintendent. Unequal treatment of board members can—and sooner or later will—lead to a bad outcome.
  • Let the board handle board problems. Boards must develop the skills and ability to self-govern effectively. Superintendents can—and should—assure that the board has the training and other resources to do its job well, but it is not the superintendent’s job to deal with governance issues. Both boards and superintendents must recognize that they have two very different jobs to do. Good teamwork requires that each do the expected work very well.
  • Don’t try to please every member of the board; please the board. Wehave observed superintendentsmake weak responses to the action of a board majority in order to appease those who dissented.Not good practice. Announce to the board either prior to or following important votes the action you will take based upon the vote, then do it. Each member is responsible for his own vote; the superintendent is responsible for doing a different job, based on those votes.
  • Take direction only when the board votes. We have observed many instances of superintendents and senior executive staff members sitting through board meetings, listening to the random thoughts and comments of individual board members, and then going into a staff meeting to try to decide what direction they had been given—if any. Boards speak, and give direction, when they vote, not before! Boards must be skilled at using parliamentary procedure, and staff must encourage this discipline. Listening to the random statements of individual board members may be an enlightening exercise, and the superintendent may hear something that he or she thinks may be worth a try. But the board has given no direction until a vote has been taken.
  • Never, ever, take direction from an individual member—even the president! This one can be hard to do, but it is crucial to long-term survival. Your contract is with the board, not with the president or any member of the board. Most presidents fully understand this difference, and they don’t assume authority they don’t have. It’s perfectly ok for the president to interpret the board’s decisions and counsel the superintendent if there is any ambiguity, but it is not ok for any individual member to direct the superintendent or any staff member. If such misguided behavior is happening, the smart superintendent will ask the individual if this direction is based on board action. That usually solves the problem. If it doesn’t, the matter should be referred to the full board. Once assumed authority is tolerated, it becomes the norm, and staff will wonder exactly for whom they work.

Good board-superintendent relations demand absolute clarity of direction. We suggest this conversation between the superintendent and board:

“Ladies and gentlemen, in order for me and my staff to be able to assure the board that we are doing the work the board expects us to do, we believe it is critical that we are in sync with each other about how the board will direct our work. I would like to state for you our (my) understanding about how direction will be conveyed by the board to me and the staff, and determine whether we have any differences of opinion. This is my understanding about how direction will be given:

  • Board direction will be given only to the superintendent, and through the superintendent to all other staff. The board will direct no staff member other than the superintendent;
  • Only the board will give direction to the superintendent. No individual board member or committee has the authority to direct the superintendent or any member of the staff;
  • The board speaks only when it votes. I will consider any board comments and points of view as suggestions and viewpoints for possible consideration, but I will interpret board action as having been given only when a majority of the board votes affirmatively to take a course of action;
  • I will consider a majority vote of the board to be as official and binding as a unanimous one. While the staff and I will respect the opinions of every individual board member, we will be guided in our work by the board as an entity, regardless of the strength of the vote.”

Sound formal? It does – but find a way to have this conversation with your board sooner rather than later. Establish the values and understanding of how you will be given and receive direction. It will save headaches, and maybe your job!

Linda J. Dawson and Dr. Randy Quinn are senior partners of The Aspen Group International, LLC
P.O. Box 1777 Castle Rock, CO 80104 Email:
ph: 303.882.9888 or 478.0125 Fax: 208.247.6084