Board-Savvy Superintendent                            Page 14


The Board Member as

Public Surveyor  


Richard Mayer

For months the school board has been discussing the school calendar. Plan 1 is to keep the current calendar, which is exactly what a newly elected board member favors, but three other proposed plans call for major changes.

In an effort to do a good job, the newly elected school board member decides to construct a little survey to gauge the community’s preferences. His survey describes each proposal, listing the pros and cons. He sends his survey to parents whose e-mail addresses are included in school newsletters, as well as PTA members and district committee members listed in district records and even to his own former campaign workers.

When the results of the survey come in, a majority of respondents favors Plan 1. The board member is delighted to have some useful evidence to bring to the next board meeting.

What Went Awry?
What could possibly be wrong with what appears to be a board member’s hard work to solicit public input on an important issue?

As a school board member with more than 30 years of experience, I see this innocent-looking survey running the risk of damaging, not helping, the district’s public relations. If the board decides to ask the superintendent to conduct a survey on behalf of the district, community members who already received this unauthorized survey would be confused, or worse, might fail to reply because they think they already responded to a calendar survey.

In addition to co-opting the district administration’s role, the board member likely created a survey that was biased to favor his preferred option and sent it to an unrepresentative sample. In the world of school board decision making, having bad data can be worse than having no data at all.

Legal problems could ensue because employee groups might consider the survey a way of circumventing negotiations on a contractual matter (if the school calendar is in your district’s labor contracts), and some survey recipients may feel the school board member has misused district e-mail lists for his personal purposes.

Finally, fellow board members and the superintendent might see the survey as something done behind their backs.

Usurping Authority
Superintendents must be especially sensitive to rogue behavior by board members who encroach on the administration’s domain. In this case, the superintendent is certain to discover quickly the distribution of an unauthorized survey because one or more of the recipients would be likely to contact the district.

As soon as a superintendent gets an inkling of such activity, she or he needs to have a friendly but firm discussion with the offender about the roles of board members and school administrators. It might be wise to enlist the board president in this effort because the board member not only usurped the superintendent’s prerogative but also the board’s authority. Considerable tact is needed to confront someone who is responsible for hiring, evaluating and firing you, but all will be a lot happier if they can agree to a common set of ground rules.

If the superintendent is absolutely unable to hold the needed conversation with the rogue board member, then she or he should prepare the board president to have the conversation. The goal is to come to an agreement that it is the school district’s job to conduct district surveys, hold public hearings or form task forces on special issues, whereas it is the board’s job to initiate and guide the process.

An important (but unwritten) aspect of the superintendent’s role is to prevent board members from behaving badly. In this case, the board member broke a basic rule: Don’t usurp the district’s authority. When the calendar issue arose on the board agenda, the superintendent could have discussed with the board whether and how they would like to gather public input as a district.

A longer-term solution is to ensure every board member has effective training in board-superintendent responsibilities, so everyone agrees on the difference between being a responsible board member and micromanaging.

Richard Mayer, a school board member in the Goleta Union School District in Goleta, Calif., is 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 Press). E-mail: mayer@psych.ucsb.edu



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