Linda Dawson
             Linda J. Dawson

Survive and Succeed: How to Make it Work With Your School Board


Linda J. Dawson and Dr. Randy Quinn
Aspen Group International, LLC

Probably the most glaring deficiency in school administrator training programs is the lack of preparation for dealing effectively with school boards. Universities seem to think candidates for advanced degrees are blessed with divine wisdom about how to work with boards, and therefore they have no obligation to add further wisdom to the mix.

But here you are, and it didn’t take long to discover that divine intervention in board matters doesn’t always manifest itself. These citizens who happen to have been chosen by their peers to serve and represent their interests have ideas of their own about what and how things should be done. If you don’t do things their way, your days can seem quite long and your tenure quite short. So just what does it take to work effectively with these sometimes strong-willed boards and their members?

We have spent most of our careers counseling and coaching school boards. In the course of doing that, we also serve their superintendents. The two parties are in this mix together, and neither can succeed without the other’s success.

So, from two professionals who have worked with this pairing for most of our working lives, let us share with you what we believe goes into building and maintaining a solid relationship with your school board. The requirements can be reduced to four critical areas: 

Clear and Honest Communication

Randy Quinn 
                Randy Quinn
As we have seen the historical ups and downs of boards and superintendents, the number one reason the relationship fails is communication issues. So if the demise of the relationship is to be avoided, we advise frequent and meaningful communication with every member of the board. It isn’t good to overwhelm or purposely bury members with box-loads of information. It is necessary to give them what they need to answer questions from citizens and staff about what is going on in the district.

 

If you are a new superintendent, you will have ideas of your own about how the district should be run, which programs should be added, which should be removed, how staff should be deployed, and a host of other maneuvers that could upset someone. Count on it happening. The only thing you can’t always anticipate is where the opposition will come from. 

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It's easy for us to forget that board members frequently have experiences, connections, and insights from their own perspectives, which are different from ours, but no less important. The key is to engage, engage, and engage, in multiple venues, so that the public can see a governance team in action.
--Gary Yee, Ed.D, Immediate past superintendent, Oakland, CA

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If board members know in advance the changes you are considering—even though they may not be asked to approve them—they can better respond to the critics they encounter and help advocate for your changes. If they are ignorant about them, they cannot be the critical advocate you need. Additionally, they themselves could develop doubts about where you are going and why. This would not be a good thing. It is essential that superintendents eliminate members’ being surprised by information known first by their constituents.

Some effective superintendents send out a summary email every Friday informing members about everything significant that happened in the district during the week and listing all the important things that can be anticipated for the short-term future. Of course, important or significant matters that require more in depth conversation are handled face-to-face, but the “Friday Memo” is a great tool for keeping board members “in the loop.”

Some superintendents meet individually with each member of the board once or twice each month for a simple sharing session. The advantage of doing it is that the superintendent has an opportunity to get to know each member on a personal basis and develop a feel for how each member thinks. But there may be some risk in this strategy. Some members, through the course of conversation, may end up better informed about certain matters than others. If such a strategy is adopted, we recommend that the superintendent strategically share with the entire board a summary of the important matters that came from the conversations. This summary could be included in the Friday Memo.

Do you plan some major changes that the board should be aware of? If so, do it in a full group setting, maybe in a board work session? We again emphasize that not all such actions require board approval, but the board should be armed with full information. If six or eight of the district’s leaders are pushing in the same direction, a bigger objective can be achieved than if the superintendent is trying to address it alone.

Pace Yourself

Boards advertise for and seek leaders, people who are unafraid to embrace the job, make necessary changes, and put their own brand on programs, people, and outcomes. They look for visionaries.

Then real life sets in. “You did too much. You moved too fast. This is too much change – people can’t handle the pace.” Your natural question: “Did the board mean it when it said it wanted a strong leader? What’s going on here?”

In our experience, even if change obviously is needed, and even if it is acknowledged by the board as necessary to improve student achievement, boards can become uneasy with rapid modifications, and even more with transformations. People always resist major change, and when they do, they get exercised. Then they seek out their elected representatives and create dust storms. If your board isn’t prepared to handle such pressure, you can get caught up in the chaos—and lose the battle in the process.

Our advice:

•  Build a solid entry plan based on the board’s articulated expectations at the time you are hired. Discuss it with the board as a whole and with members individually. Get a sure feel for what will fly and what will require more work.

•  Bring members in on proposed changes early. Explain the objectives again … and again. Discuss with them the anticipated fallout – positive and negative. Find out who you need to nurture – and how.

•  Arm board members with talking points. Get commitment about their responses to citizen and employee concerns or complaints. Give them what they need to be your advocates!

•  Don’t change the district in a day. Build trust and confidence that indeed you know what you are doing and belief that together, the changes will result in higher student achievement and public support.

•  And a reminder to you as well: check your ego needs. It doesn’t all need to be about you. Say “we” rather than “I”.


Help the Board Focus on the Right Thing

Good or not good, most school boards default in performing their responsibilities and expect their superintendents to develop agendas for board meetings. We wish that could be changed, because the board meeting should belong to the board, not to the superintendent. But that’s an argument for another day.

For today, the issue is a challenge to you to find a way to have the board spend at least half its time at every board meeting focused on student results, not on district operations. The world of student achievement is a world most school boards do not live in. Members find it much easier to help you and your staff decide how things should be done than monitoring how well students are performing. Boards will find ways to fill their board meeting time with something. If it isn’t student achievement issues, it more likely will be helping you and your staff operate the district.

In our experience, most boards find it challenging, but rewarding, to spend time discussing students and how well they are doing. The challenge is the complexity of effectively monitoring and understanding student learning. It is not a precise science, as you well know, but it is the fundamental reason we all exist in this enterprise. Having the board sit out the dance means members are ignoring their responsibility.

Boards can and will do this work only if their board meeting agendas give them that opportunity. We encourage every superintendent to influence board meeting agendas by assuring that never is an agenda sent to the board that does not call for quality time (again, we recommend 50 percent) focused on achievement issues. Members want to go home after a meeting believing they have done something important. There is no more important work they can do than defining their expectations for student achievement and then monitoring the district’s effectiveness in making it happen. 


Agree With Your Board That Your Two Roles Are Fundamentally Different

Traditionally, “teamwork” between school boards and superintendents has meant that the two parties decide jointly what will be done and how it will be done. Usually this ritual culminates with some sort of board approval of the superintendent’s recommendations. 

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I have a school board member who will raise an issue by saying, “I know I might be out of my swim lane, but . . .” This introduction gives me the opportunity to revisit our separate roles and responsibilities and to use the question or issue as an opportunity to reaffirm our individual roles and to help us develop a unified approach for a response. It also gives me an opportunity to discuss with board members how they might approach the issue with their constituents from a policy and governance point of view, which gives them an effective way to help us continue to move forward.
--Patrick K. Murphy Ed. D., Superintendent Arlington VA Public Schools
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Running concurrently with this ritual is another traditional belief that the superintendent is authorized to make a few relatively low-level decisions without the board’s approval. However, if the importance of the decision reaches a certain level (typically undefined and random), it is kicked upstairs to the board to make.

This recommend-approval ritual, more than any other way of making decisions, is the cause of rampant role confusion. The problem is that both boards and their superintendents are sharing in making the very same decisions. Roles are inherently confused and accountability is fundamentally blurred. The un-ending confusion and blame-placing occurs around who had the authority to make that decision.

We believe there is a body of work that belongs to the board, and there is completely separate body of work that belongs to the superintendent. If the two bodies of work are properly defined, roles will be crystal clear, and accountability will be assigned to the party that makes the decision. The result will be decision-making authority for the superintendent that no longer requires the board’s approval for every important action.

We acknowledge the difficulty of having the board and its superintendent find that degree of role separation. It can be done, however, with the right tools, dedication of time to define values and the commitment of both parties to do things differently – coherently and harmoniously. It is this challenge that now drives most of our work with boards and their superintendents, and we know from that experience that it is a challenge that can be met successfully.

Communication, wise pacing of change, helping the board focus on student achievement rather than operations, taking the time both upfront and consistently to define and maintain role separation. Those, in our mind, are the fundamental blocks on which to build a productive relationship with your board.

Yes, there are more tips and tactics to consider. That is the stuff of on-going professional development. But these four areas, if carefully considered and practiced, will go a long way in assuring that you sleep at night, achieve your plan for the district, and enjoy a successful career trajectory.

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Linda Dawson and Randy Quinn, Senior Partners
AGI: Aspen Group International, LLC
P.O. Box 3788, Gulf Shores, AL 36547
303-478-0125 or 303-250-9000
email: aspen@aspengroup.org
www.aspengroup.org

Editor’s Note: AGI consults with school boards and superintendents throughout the United States and internationally.