Board-Savvy Superintendent                            Page 10


A Board Member’s Attack

in Print   



Richard Mayer

Some board members like to see their names in print, but problems arise when they publish opinion pieces criticizing the school district. Consider a board member who has concluded that Hank Hasty, a junior high principal, is doing a terrible job. For years, the board member has been chronicling complaints from parents and staff, and he is convinced Hasty must be fired.

When the board member takes his case to Superintendent Debbie Dineson, she is surprised and taken aback. She thanks him for his input and promises to look further, but the board member senses she has no intention of firing the principal.

“OK, if you won’t do anything about it, I will,” the board member says as he storms out.

The board member heads to his home computer to compose a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, Tri-City News. He lays out Hasty’s many blunders during his five-year principal stint. With a measure of simmering anger mixed with satisfaction, the board member sends his little gem to the editor.

The following Sunday, the Tri-City News publishes the letter as a guest editorial in a prime spot on the editorial page.

Immediate Blowback
Almost immediately, the board member’s telephone starts ringing, and the e-mail messages start rolling in. The reaction is not what he expected. A board colleague and the superintendent explain the editorial has exposed the district to lawsuits and even may have violated labor laws. Others point out some factual inaccuracies.

The board member is developing a sinking feeling. In one simple act, he has poisoned his relationship with the superintendent. By acting alone and putting himself above the board, he has damaged, perhaps irrevocably, his relationship with fellow board members. He also appears eager to destroy someone’s career.

What should the board member have done before pressing that fateful “send” key? The best approach: Take information to the superintendent and give her time to follow through on the personnel review, recognizing the superintendent’s job is to hire, evaluate and, if necessary, fire administrators.

If a board member believes the allegations aren’t being seriously considered, he should talk further with the superintendent. If necessary, the board member can request a closed session agenda item to discuss personnel matters where he can request the superintendent report to the board on her response to his allegations. Ultimately, if the board is dissatisfied with the superintendent’s management performance, the board can exercise its option to find a new leader.

Prevention Measures
What could Superintendent Debbie Dineson have done to prevent the board member from exercising terrible judgment in writing his attack editorial? Plenty!

First, she mishandled her meeting with the board member, leaving him with the impression she was not taking his accusations seriously. Even if she doubted their accuracy, she should have been specific and clear about how she would look into the board member’s concerns and when she would report back.

Second, a long-term solution is for the superintendent to give personnel updates to the board on a regular basis (in accordance with labor laws). In this way, the board will see the district has a process in place for evaluating school administrators and, if necessary, retraining, reassigning or even firing them.

This is not a chance for board members to micromanage the district’s personnel review process, but simply an opportunity for the superintendent to report on performance reviews of district administrators. Receiving regular updates makes the school board feel included in district operations. Of course, board members must understand the confidential nature of the information they receive about individual administrators.

Finally, the superintendent should ensure the board receives training in the thorny issues of labor law, especially pertaining to employees’ rights to confidentiality. The training can range from distributing a short article produced or selected by the district’s legal staff to having a brief presentation at a board meeting to holding a workshop.

Richard Mayer, a school board member in California’s Goleta Union School District, is a 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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