Board-Savvy Superintendent                            Page 12


When Is It Time to

Say Goodbye?   


Board-Savvy McAdams

First a few quick stories. A superintendent in a small city school district asked me to provide team-building training for her board of education. The board members were regularly giving direct orders to principals and central-office administrators. They recently had restored to the principalship, with a raise, a principal whom the superintendent had suspended and recommended for termination.

Seeing the board would not change its ways, I asked the superintendent why she did not resign and move on. Her response: “For maximum retirement benefits, I need to work two more years.”

In two large urban districts in which I worked, the superintendents faced ongoing abusive insults from some board members. In one, the board majority did not tolerate the abuse and responded every time with a firm reprimand. In the other, the board majority said nothing, explaining to me that it was important to maintain good working relationships with the abusive board members.

In another large urban district, an interim superintendent who had made a great impression in just a few months and whom a majority of the board wanted to appoint as superintendent declined to be considered and instead took a superintendency in a smaller district, discreetly saying nothing. But it was common knowledge that a strong board minority was up to its eyeballs in micromanagement.

Spurned Advice
A midcareer superintendent in a small-town district twice invited me to provide management oversight training for a board with standing committees that were in fact management committees, hiring personnel, selecting vendors and directly supervising the major business units of the district. My message to the board was not well-received. A few months later, I learned the superintendent had taken a superintendency in a much smaller district.

Finally, there was my good friend Paul (a pseudonym). He had just retired — prematurely I thought — after a long and successful term as superintendent of one of the nation’s premier urban districts. I asked him why during our next encounter.

“Well, I loved the work and felt I was still making a difference, and in fact I was getting everything I needed through the board. But board turnover had turned my strong, united board into a divided board that challenged almost everything,” he said. “The job had become just too stressful and just too much work.”

A Personal Decision
There is a great lesson embedded in these stories. Sometimes a superintendent needs to say goodbye, not just because retirement or a great opportunity beckons and not because a contract buyout is looming. Sometimes a superintendent needs to leave because he or she no longer is effective or because board-induced stress has siphoned the joy out of the work.

The decision is always a personal one, and lots of variables may affect timing. No two situations are the same. Nevertheless, there are some guidelines board-savvy superintendents should keep in mind.

First, superintendent candidates should never be so enamored of a job opportunity that they fool themselves into thinking they can work with a dysfunctional board.

Second, superintendents always should examine themselves to determine if they share responsibility for the impasse, and if they do, take action accordingly.

Third, superintendents need to assess their effectiveness. Strong opposition from a minority faction of the board may be stressful, but it need not impede district progress. Alan Bersin provided transformational leadership as superintendent of San Diego Unified School District (1998-2005) with a bitterly divided 3/2 board.

But if effectiveness is near zero and unlikely to change or the stress is unbearable, it is time to say goodbye. Voluntary departure does not constitute failure. Some of the nation’s most effective superintendents have once or more in their careers said adieu for just these reasons. Goodbye simply demonstrates wisdom. Say it with grace, and move on.

Don McAdams is founder and chairman of the board of the Center for Reform of School Systems in Houston, Texas. E-mail: mcadams@crss.org 


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