A Board Member's Kitchen Cabinet

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Board-Savvy Superintendent             Page 10

 

BY RICHARD MAYER

 It’s 7 p.m. on the first Tuesday of the month and time for a school board member’s monthly meeting with his supporters whom he lovingly refers to as his “kitchen cabinet.” Most are neighbors and friends from his little corner of the district, and they all worked hard on his election campaign.

Part of the reason he ran for the board was to give voice to these folks, who often felt they were not represented on the board. To his way of thinking, the schools in his neighborhood always seem to lose out compared to those in the more affluent north side, so he and his cabinet meet monthly to strategize on issues affecting their neighborhood’s schools.

Richard Mayer

 

One cabinet member worries about the state of playground equipment at the neighborhood elementary school. “If the play structures were this worn out at Northview (an elementary school in the more affluent part of the district), they would have been replaced years ago,” she says resentfully.

The board member suggests the group mount a lobbying campaign to get new playground equipment by e-mailing and calling the superintendent and speaking out during the public comment period of the upcoming school board meeting.

A Harmful Vision

Someone looking in on this kitchen cabinet meeting might think this is a great example of democracy in action. The board member is responsive to his supporters and works with them to make things happen.

Yet, as I look at this kitchen cabinet meeting, I am concerned. The kitchen cabinet is based on an incorrect and ultimately destructive vision of a board member’s duty. Once elected, the member’s job is to represent everyone in the district. His job is to do the best he can for all the children, not just a special group. His job is to work with the superintendent and board colleagues as a team to solve problems and improve conditions for everyone in the district.

What should a superintendent do when a board member leads a campaign to press for special interests — such as securing playground equipment or more teacher aides for his neighborhood school at the expense of other schools?

This is a perfect opportunity to listen carefully to the board member’s request and to acknowledge possible merit, but at the same time point out your mutual responsibility to look at the big picture for the entire district. The superintendent can explain district procedures and criteria for replacing playground equipment and show how the needs of each school will be addressed in the playground equipment plan. The superintendent can help the board member see how his special request meshes with the overall district needs, and see the ramifications of his request for others in the district.

A Tactful Discussion

If the board member sincerely believes the district is showing favoritism that disadvantages a particular group, the superintendent should pledge to work honestly to collect factual information about his accusation. If the facts bear out the claim, then a remedial course of action should be worked out with the board. If the facts do not bear out his accusations, the superintendent can thank him for helping the district ensure the board is fair to his voiceless constituents. In this way, the superintendent builds rapport with the board member, who hopefully will communicate the evenhandedness to his constituents.

In addition, as soon as the superintendent realizes she has become the target of a campaign orchestrated by a board member, it is time for a tactful discussion with the board member about teamwork. The board member needs to see the impact of his actions on the superintendent and other board members. The superintendent can help the board member see an “us-versus-them” approach to solving problems is inappropriate and usually unproductive.

A good resolution would be for the board member to reserve his kitchen cabinet only for election campaigns and be available to talk with anyone in the district. In short, the board member must see the value of teaming with the superintendent and board colleagues on behalf of all the district’s students.

Richard Mayer, a school board member in Goleta, Calif., 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, 2011). E-mail: mayer@psych.ucsb.edu

 

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