Board-Savvy Superintendent                           Page 11


A Board Member Who

Performs Favors    


Richard MayerA board member is walking his dog down the street when he spots his neighbor Dorothy Dornstein doing gardening. She rushes to the sidewalk yelling, “I’ve been meaning to call you. You’re still on the school board, aren’t you?”

Dorothy is concerned about the way Ms. Bitterman, a high school math teacher, has been treating her daughter. Ms. Bitterman accused Dorothy’s daughter, Donna, of failing to submit required homework, which dropped her semester grade to a B. Dorothy knows Donna handed in her homework on time every week. Donna even has several homework papers marked “Good job” that Ms. Bitterman claims were never completed.

Dorothy is crushed by the demoralizing effect of this injustice on her daughter. She wants Donna moved to another math class immediately.

The board member knows from a confidential briefing that Ms. Bitterman is having some emotional problems that are interfering with her performance. In a moment of compassion, he says, “That is a terrible story, Dorothy. I am so sorry. Ms. Bitterman has been having some problems lately. I’ll talk to the principal tomorrow.”

The board member feels like a hero as his dog wags his tail all the way home.

Misguided Judgment
What’s wrong with an elected official doing a favor? As a board member of 30 years, let me list the first few reasons that come to mind.

First, the board member made a promise he did not have the authority to make. Board members are not in charge of class placements, even when the rationale is clear-cut.

Second, the board member violated the chain of command by volunteering to contact the principal. Third, he divulged a confidential personnel matter, violating an employee’s rights in a way that put the district in legal jeopardy and could initiate a mean-spirited gossip campaign.

Confronted with this growing list of wrongs, the board member no longer is looking so much like a hero.

Rather, the board member’s best approach would have been to acknowledge the validity of Dorothy’s frustration and then briefly describe her options based on board policies. He could have explained how the chain of command works, encouraging Dorothy to talk with the teacher, then move on to the principal if the response is not acceptable and finally on to the superintendent if necessary. The board member could have asked Dorothy to keep him posted, so he could ensure the system was working.

This dog-walking episode shows the perils of making promises that can’t be met.

A Gentle Discussion
In the superintendent’s hypothetical lesson book for board members, Lesson 1 involves the chain of command. The superintendent needs to ensure board members know what to say when a parent asks for a favor that involves breaking the chain. Board members should be coached that the first question they ask in such a situation is “Have you talked to the teacher?”

Board members generally are well-meaning and want to help constituents, but they may need training in appropriate ways to do so. Superintendents can protect board members from exercising terrible judgment by making sure they receive the training they need.

In this scenario, the superintendent must perform some First Aid as soon as she finds out about the board member’s antics. The board member needs a gentle conversation, in which the superintendent tactfully explains the reasons for the chain of command and advises she will take over responsibility for working with the parent. As a courtesy and a tutorial on how the district works, the superintendent could follow up with the board member to let him know how the parent’s request is being handled.

The superintendent’s task is to help the board member see he cannot single-handedly snap his fingers and make the district’s policies go away. In the future, when someone brings a board member a heartfelt problem, that board member has an obligation to listen faithfully and to offer compassion — but in some cases the best help may be to provide clear information about the district’s procedures, including who to contact.

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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