Board-Savvy Superintendent                            Page 11


When a Board Member Asks

for Special Treatment   


Richard Mayer

The board president's daughter, Rona, is entering 12th grade at Roselawn High School, and he really wants her to get into the honors calculus class. The board president decides to call Rita Romero, the high school principal, right away before all the seats in the class are taken.

“This is Richard Richland, school board president. I’d like to talk briefly with Rita, please.”

“I’ll get her right away, Richard,” the receptionist answers, even though Rita Romero is in the middle of an intense staff meeting.

“Hi, Richard, it is nice to hear from you,” Rita says in her most welcoming voice.

“Hi, Rita. I know you are busy, so I’ll try to be brief. Rona applied to get Math 12H next semester, and I am wondering if you can tell me whether she got into it.” Richard knows the schedule probably will not be finalized for a few weeks, but he just wants Rita to know he is interested in his daughter’s placement.

“No problem,” Rita replies in an instant. “I’ll make sure she gets Math 12H.”

Anything Wrong?
The board president might believe he did nothing wrong in that brief call, but from the vantage point of others, he could be seen as abusing his school board position for his own personal gain, thus acting like a terrible board member.

First, consider how Rita Romero viewed the call. In her eyes, a board member is her boss. There is no need for him to exert any overt pressure on her because she feels it automatically. In the board member’s eyes, there was no pressure — he sees himself acting as a parent rather than a board member; yet in Romero’s eyes, Richland is always a school board member who has great power over her career.

Second, consider how another parent at Roselawn High might feel when discovering the board president called the principal to enroll his daughter into a class in which other students were shut out. “Special treatment” is the phrase the parent might use when complaining to friends and neighbors. In the public’s view, it appears Richland took advantage of his status. That perception would damage the reputation of the district, which has worked hard to maintain a climate of fairness. That perception also could hurt the principal’s reputation and her credibility in working with other parents.

Requisite Referrals
In my 30-plus years as a school board member, I have come to realize that an essential (albeit unwritten) part of a superintendent’s job is to prevent board members from behaving badly. Personal integrity is a board member’s most important asset. Once a board member’s colleagues, constituents or district administrators suspect even a tinge of corruption, he or she has lost effectiveness as a school board member. The superintendent should ensure board members receive training, including a firm understanding that it is never appropriate to use one’s board position for special treatment.

For a principal or superintendent, the most pragmatic way to handle requests from school board members is to honor them. An administrator might decide that school board members have earned a little special consideration in light of all the time and effort they put into the district. Yet this decision would be misguided because integrity and fairness are essential characteristics of school administrators, as well. Principals and superintendents work hard to create a culture of fairness, and this work would be undermined by saying the district’s rules do not apply to the family and friends of board members. When unreasonable requests are made, the superintendent might need to have a tactful conversation with the board member. The focus should be on seeing the situation through the principal’s eyes.

Finally, the superintendent should ensure principals know how to deal with unreasonable requests from school board members, such as referring them to the superintendent. This problem at Roselawn High School would not have occurred if such a procedure had been in place. 

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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