Board-Savvy Superintendent                          Page 12


Subtle Influences of the Superintendent 




Board Savvy 2

As a consultant on school board development and a former board member, I sometimes think I’ve heard all or most versions of inappropriate commentary that have been offered up at board meetings.

Even the most high-functioning leadership teams can get derailed when a remark perceived as rude or prejudiced is voiced. I receive phone calls from school board members whose mouths are still agape days after hearing something they never thought would be said, especially “right there in front of everyone!”

We all hope to be part of leadership teams that value personal opinion as key to the discussion. It’s an integral part of the evidence used in making quality decisions. People are passionate about issues, and their related opinions can be the same. However, there’s clearly a right way and, let’s just say, a “less right” way to express those passionate views.

Quick Intervention

I enjoyed membership on a board where trust existed. We often disagreed, but respected a process that led to agreement (or consensus) that was professional, not personal, and appropriate, especially in public. I work with many board members who serve on similarly functional teams. As a result, I know healthy board and board/superintendent partnerships aren’t phantom ideas, existing only in some other universe.

When I work with board members or superintendents who can’t believe what they heard at their meeting last night, initially I’m equally taken aback. First, I empathize. Then, we get down to business. What should have happened, and what should happen going forward?

In my view, the superintendent who’s eyewitness to an inappropriate (or unfair, prejudiced, misinformed) comment can do much to limit the damage. For example, say a prank occurred at the high school, resulting in damage to a classroom and injury to a student. One board member loudly and forcefully intimates the principal was derelict in his duties. The superintendent should intervene as soon as the comment is made.

“Mr. President, Mr. Jones said Principal Best’s lack of control allowed the prank to take place.” Use the word said, which is factual, instead of more weighted ones like accused. “I understand he believes Mr. Best’s lack of control essentially made it easy for students to access the classroom. He holds Mr. Best responsible. First, as superintendent, I review these protocols with the principals regularly and I know Mr. Best was on hand immediately.”

The superintendent should move quickly to focus on the real problems, which are the prank’s aftermath and the prevention of future ones.

“Three students attempted what they saw as a harmless prank. Unfortunately, some damage resulted and one student was slightly injured. Principal Best and I have met with them and their families and will ensure accountability. Additionally, I’d ask for our policies and practices related to pranks and classroom security be reviewed to ensure they’re reliable and appropriate. Please know that all current ones were followed by staff.”

Mitigating Situations

This response does several things. First, it maintains attention where it should be — on policy and prevention. Second, it shows staff their boss “has their back.” Third, it assures the board and members of the public that accountability is in place and policy has been followed. Fourth, it makes clear to the vocal board member, without embarrassing him, that unverified opinions are not OK.

The superintendent’s intervention addresses the real problems: policy and consequence. Additionally, he response allows all board members to regroup, take a breath and move forward with further discussion.

Certainly, I’d advocate for the superintendent and Mr. Jones to have a private, follow-up conversation. The superintendent must reassure Mr. Jones (who is one of his or her bosses, after all) that he or she understands Mr. Jones’ position and that the situation has been mitigated.

When out-of-left-field comments occur, it’s important for the board president or superintendent to step in immediately and directly. Disagreement and anger are sometimes unavoidable, but professionalism is always to be expected.

Cheryl Ryan is deputy director of school board services with the Ohio School Boards Association in Columbus, Ohio. E-mail:


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