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Board-Savvy Superintendent                            Page 10

 

Don’t Let Board Members

Go Rogue

SusanBirdsey

BY SUSAN B. BIRDSEY

Soon after I was appointed to my first superintendency, a veteran superintendent gave me some advice: “Spend at least five times more time with your school board than you think is necessary.” I questioned this logic because I had a great board whose members worked well together.

And after all, they had hired me, so they must have some faith in my abilities.

In addition, I was an instructional leader and an expert in education. Why would I need to spend so much time with the school board? I had work to do for the district that did not include spending copious amounts of time with board members. We have the same goals; we are professional adults. How much time did I need to spend working with the school board?

Oh, how wrong I was! Although all school board members were dedicated and wanted to make a positive difference for our school district, they were not working as a team, and they were not focused on policy governance. Rather, the board members were focused on individual agendas that were not necessarily for the betterment of the district.

Eye-Opening Episode
This became clear to stakeholders and me when the school calendar was presented for adoption. As a district, we work to ensure all stakeholders have a voice. We have a calendar committee, we survey stakeholders, and we read hundreds of stakeholder comments. This is a process that takes months, and we present the final two choices to the board for input on a final decision.

At the meeting scheduled to approve the calendar, the school board went rogue. They invented a new calendar and approved it immediately. I couldn’t believe it. How was I going to rebuild trust with stakeholders when the school board, in one vote, undid so much? At this moment, I realized just how far apart we were as a team.

I solicited advice from an education leader with more experience than I. I had to figure out how to get this board working toward our common goals, using our vision as a guide and following norms.

The first change I made was to communicate with all five members on a regular basis. I sent text messages, spoke by phone and sent weekly updates via e-mail. I began meeting with the board president every week. The president and I reviewed the agenda, reviewed the district happenings and built a trusting relationship.

The board agreed to hold monthly workshops and to conduct a book study. The first thing we did at those workshops was to develop norms, norms that each one of us could agree to and that would also help us work more effectively as a team. We each verbally agreed to follow the norms. We also agreed to have appropriate conversations if the norms were not being followed. The verbal agreement helped make each of us responsible for the success of the norms.

I gave each board member a copy of The Essential School Board Book (Harvard Education Press, 2009) by Nancy Walser. We had monthly, off-site discussions that were relaxed and friendly. We read the book together and gave examples of what we did well and what we needed to work on. We came up with words we would use when norms were not being met. We generated examples and staged role-playing scenarios.

Hijack Prevention
The school board is now highly effective. Every member makes decisions based on our high goals, our vision and our norms. It is not a rubber-stamp group. Members ask challenging and appropriate questions. They work together, ensuring they are using policy governance to improve our school district. In the end, the veteran superintendent was right. As superintendents, we should focus on our board members first, build solid relationships with them, ensure everybody knows their roles, give board members the right work to do, develop norms and ask for outside help if needed.

The work we do as instructional leaders is too important to be hijacked by personal agendas. When you begin by focusing on the school board, it allows you to do what you were hired to do — be the education expert and visionary leader and move your school district forward.

Susan Birdsey is superintendent of the Garfield School District Re-2 in Rifle, Colo. E-mail: sbirdsey@garfieldre2.org 

 

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