.Nameplate February 2013 Issue
Board-Savvy Superintendent                            Page 12


A Board Member Overdoes

His Homework 


Richard Mayer


Sometimes a school board member can be a little too helpful. Consider a board member who has worked for months on a draft policy concerning grounds management.

Based on his repeated prodding, the board is about to discuss the issue, particularly what to do about field mice infesting athletic fields for years and how to get rid of weeds. The board member strongly favors a green policy that bans toxic-chemical use.

The board member has collected environmental policies from other districts and model policies from environmental groups. From these, the board member has crafted a grounds-management policy for the district.

When the item comes up at the meeting, the board member will hand out the proposal, along with a fact sheet justifying it. To ensure the point hits home, pro-environment supporters have been asked to speak in favor.

Preventive Measures
Many would say the board member has done a terrific job. But as a school board member of 30-plus years, I see a situation where good intentions can lead to bad consequences. With the board member on the verge of disaster, I am reminded of the adage that an unwritten part of the superintendent’s job is to prevent board members from engaging in inappropriate behavior. What’s wrong here?

First, the board member left administrators outside the loop. The superintendent’s job is to bring policies to the board, based on the board’s general direction. Starting the process by handing her the final product implies she can’t handle her job.

Second, the board member left his fellow members out of the loop. Boards expect to work through issues by gathering information, getting public input, seeking expert advice and asking enough questions to fully understand what they are doing. By denying fellow board members a chance to be part of the process, the overly helpful board member may lose their votes, and worse, he may poison his long-term relationship with them.

Third, the board member overlooked the public. Although handpicked supporters are coming to the meeting, that is really not what soliciting public input means.

Tactful Dealings
Dealing with overzealous board members is particularly challenging for superintendents. While superintendents should feel supported when board members take an active interest, the superintendent cannot allow a board member to micromanage. A superintendent with appropriate rapport could talk directly with the offender upon discovering the policy project. Otherwise, she could ask the board president to step in. The latter approach could backfire if the board member feels muzzled by the superintendent, so it requires great tact.

If the superintendent does not learn about the policy until the board meeting, she must shift into first aid mode by tactfully thanking the member for the hard work and then steering the discussion toward setting a timeline for gathering information and giving direction to the administration for drafting a policy.

The long-term solution is to ensure the board has appropriate training and agreement on board-superintendent relations. The ground rules for decision making may need to be worked out in training sessions or a retreat. The board’s process starts with a clear statement of the issue — in this case, the rationale for changes to the district’s grounds-management policy.

The superintendent ensures the board receives appropriate information and, when needed, access to expert advice. The board members are responsible for studying relevant information, asking questions to fully understand the issue, seeking input from the public (including district employees), discussing the issue at meetings and reaching consensus on direction to the superintendent.

The superintendent (or the management team) then is responsible for drafting policies or proposals consistent with the board’s direction, and the board ultimately accepts, revises, replaces or rejects them.

This decision-making process requires time and effort, give and take, and much listening and discussion, but everyone’s willingness to follow the protocol can prevent board members from engaging in terrible behavior, as this board member is about to do.

Richard Mayer, a school board member in Goleta, Calif., is professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of How NOT to Be a Terrible School Board Member (Corwin). E-mail: mayer@psych.ucsb.edu


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