Board-Savvy Superintendent                        Page 12


When a Board Member Speaks

Without Authority  



Richard Mayer

Parents and children are taking their positions on the well-worn bleachers in the amphitheater at Grandview School, waiting for the annual Spring Sing to begin. As Principal Alicia Alton looks around the crowd, she notices only one board member has accepted her invitation to attend. He is smiling and saying hello to everyone who looks his way, feeling very much the dignitary. Because he does not see Superintendent Debbie Dineson or anyone from her staff, he assumes it is up to him to represent the board of education.

The principal steps up to the podium, and a hush falls over the audience. She welcomes everyone to Grandview’s Spring Sing and then says: “Before we get started, let’s welcome Richard Richland over here, representing our school board. Richard, can you come up and say a few words?”

The board member smiles and waves as he walks up to the podium wondering what he is going say. He had no idea he would be asked to speak, but he sees this as a good opportunity to communicate with the community.

“Thank you, Principal Alton, for inviting me to this wonderful event at Grandview School. I want you all to know that the school board is committed to helping all children in the district reach their potential through an enriching instructional program that includes the arts.”

That sounds a bit too abstract, the board member thinks to himself, so he adds: “We on the school board are committed to providing increased funding for music, expanding the band program, and, in the near future, we want to build a new auditorium here at Grandview for events like this Spring Sing.”

These are all personal goals that he has had in mind for a long time as a board member, so he figured it made sense to share them with the audience.

An Unwritten Duty
Did something go wrong here? The board member had good intentions to support the folks at Grandview School, but he wound up misleading the audience into believing that he spoke for the school board. The initial sentence was entirely appropriate because it is a paraphrase of the district’s mission statement, approved by the board at a special meeting the year prior.

However, in his final sentence, the board member said the board supports specific proposals, even though the board has not taken a stand on any of them. Additionally, the board member misused his little moment of fame by trying to turn a festive event into a political speech.

As I look at this episode of terrible boardsmanship from my perspective as a school board member, I am reminded that an unwritten duty of any superintendent is to help prevent school board members from looking bad. What could Superintendent Dineson have done to prevent a school board member from speaking for the board without authority to do so?

Clear Parameters
Part of the cause of this problem was that no one from the central office was at the event, so the principal turned to a school board member to represent the district. If the superintendent (or another district-level administrator) had been there, the principal probably would have called on her or him to say a few words, sparing the school board member from an unexpected moment of fame.

It is also clear that the principal needs some training in how to recognize school board members at public events, and such training falls under the superintendent’s purview. It would be best to arrange in advance (and with very clear parameters) when a school board member is expected to speak at a school event.

Some board members may believe the administration plays favorites. Superintendent Dineson should make sure there is an agreed-upon procedure for selecting who speaks at school events.

Finally, the superintendent may want to make sure board members receive training, either through informal mentoring or formal workshops, on communicating with the public. In short, the superintendent contributed to the school board member’s terrible performance — but, of course, that is not an excuse for it.

Richard Mayer, a school board member in the Goleta Union School District in Goleta, Calif., is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He adapted this column from his book How Not to Be a Terrible School Board Member (Corwin). E-mail: mayer@psych.ucsb.edu


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