Board-Savvy Superintendent                          Page 10


Resolving Board Interference





Almost all veteran superintendents can recall issues of board member interference at some point during their career. Often these occurrences result from a member’s inexperience or a misinterpretation of his or her role and responsibilities. Usually, the matter is short-lived.

At times, however, the interference is not the result of a member’s learning curve. It gets personal, and the result can be a nightmare, not only for the superintendent, but for the entire school district.

I recently read an account of one superintendent’s relationship with particular board members becoming so confrontational that language to define acceptable board-member behavior was added to the superintendent’s contract. This language also provided that a committee, consisting of a board member, an administrator and one other person appointed by the board president, be convened to investigate incidents of alleged board member violations and, if the committee validates a violation, the committee is to report its findings at the next public board meeting following the investigation.

An Alternative Tact
Admittedly, this was a unique method of addressing this issue, even a little melodramatic, and while there were several stipulations in the new contract language that raise questions from an employer/employee standpoint, it was evidently acceptable in this instance as a deterrent to inappropriate board behavior. However, I sincerely doubt there will be a flurry of requests from other superintendents who want similar language in their contracts.

While my advice would have encouraged a course of action other than the one taken by this superintendent and board in central Pennsylvania, I cannot criticize them for addressing a situation that has an impact on effective leadership and governance in their district. Truly, superintendents have every right, by position and professional courtesy, to be treated respectfully and fairly, especially by the school board that not only employs them, but whose members are (or should be) aligned on the same side of the governance table with them.

But what should superintendents do when individual board members go on the attack? Certainly, superintendents have every right to defend themselves, but the time and place of the defense are important, and the defense should follow a predetermined strategy.

No board member-recall provisions exist in most states, and a narrow criterion exists for the legal removal of a member from office. More specifically, nothing is legally available to address a board member’s less-than-desirable interpersonal communication skills or nasty personality. Essentially, school boards must be self-governing. That is the emphasis, and it must be the focus of a defensive strategy.

Mitigating Disputes
The board/superintendent relationship is a complementary one wherein each party has a responsibility to work cooperatively with the other and within its respective role. Consequently, when individual board members’ actions are beyond their authority or when their communication with their superintendent is other than collegial, the board must be encouraged to take the appropriate corrective action.

The savvy superintendent immediately addresses board member issues that could compromise the board/superintendent relationship, understanding that while individual members may create problems for the superintendent, they are not the superintendent’s problem. Still, addressing it immediately is imperative to prevent an escalation. Enlisting an outside facilitator can mitigate the situation and provide a mutually satisfying solution.

Likewise, school board associations not only promote a collegial relationship between superintendents and school boards, they often can assist in resolving board/superintendent conflicts. Workshops for team building can be a useful preventative measure.

Lastly, an effective tool in some situations is the development and formal adoption of a board compact, an agreement among board members that identifies acceptable board practices and behavioral expectations. Calm waters facilitate the formation of a compact, which is a great tool to use when storms are raging.

Michael Adamson is director of board services with the Indiana School Boards Association in Indianapolis, Ind. E-mail: madamson@isba-ind.org


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