Board-Savvy Superintendent                        Page 10


Five Ways to Unknowingly

Undermine Your Board



Harry Pringle

In my school law practice, I’ve worked with literally hundreds of school boards and superintendents over the years. I’ve seen many examples of excellent superintendent-board relationships, resulting in dynamic, well-run school districts. Sadly, I’ve also watched as school districts became paralyzed by poor relationships, resulting in organizations that simply were unable to move forward.

In some cases, the poor relations resulted from boards unknowingly undermining their superintendents, often because board members, in many cases lacking experience on governing bodies, did not have the ability to function together effectively.

In other cases, however, the reverse was true. It was the superintendent who unknowingly undermined the school board, resulting in a failed or at best ineffective governing structure.

What follows are five of the more common reasons that I have seen for superintendents to lose the board’s confidence.

Not having a complete command of a school district’s finances. Nothing undermines a board’s confidence in its superintendent faster than the suspicion its CEO is not on top of the school district’s financial situation. Most superintendents do not have a background in sophisticated financial management, but knowing their district’s budget inside and out and keeping track of finances on an ongoing basis are absolutely critical to a superintend-ent’s success. Failing to do so, as I have seen too many times, leads to disaster.

Not letting a board know immediately about bad news. It’s easy to keep a board up to speed when the news is upbeat. But it’s much harder and yet far more important when the news is not. It doesn’t matter what the bad news is — a minor school bus accident, a drop in stand-ardized test scores or an unfavorable result in a due process hearing — I can guarantee you it won’t get better with time. Being honest with a board breeds confidence. Being fearful of being the bearer of bad tidings does not.

Spending too much time addressing requests of individual board members. Obviously, being responsive to individuals on the board makes good management sense. But remember, you work for a board — not a group of individuals. And when you spend the district’s limited staff and financial resources on issues of interest to individual members rather than the board as a whole, you are short-changing the board and creating resentment on the part of other members that will not serve you well.

Criticizing the board or individual members, either in public or discussions with others. This sounds elementary, but I can’t count the times over the years when I’ve seen a superintendent complain about a board or some of its members, usually out of pure frustration. The complaints may be completely justified, but they will destroy a working relationship with frightening speed. This is especially true when the conversation — or worse yet, the e-mail — is “private” and yet it gets back to the board or board member, which it inevitably does.

Not making clear, well-reasoned and fully researched recommendations to the board. Sitting at a meeting while an issue is presented to a school board without a clear and compelling recommendation to accompany it is painful, yet I’ve endured such presentations many times. Boards need to understand the pros and cons of issues coming before them, along with the trade-offs and alternatives to any course of action. But they also need a persuasive recommendation from their CEO. A compelling presentation breeds trust; an equivocal or sloppy one destroys it.

What all five points have in common is simple: good leadership and effective communication. When superintendents keep these concepts in mind, they will become the respected chief executive officers of their districts. And when school boards allow them to play that role, their school districts will become exciting, high-performing organizations.

Harry Pringle is an attorney specializing in school law with Drummond Woodsum in Portland, Maine. E-mail: hrpringle@dwmlaw.com


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