Superintendent Discourse: Considering The Perfect School Board Member

Dr. Brian Sheehan, Instructional Leader

Salemwood School

Malden Public Schools

Malden, MA


Sheehan.jpg Introduction

While relations with school board members are regularly on the list of disincentives for those considering a career in district leadership, a majority of superintendents continue to rate their relationships with their school board members as positive.  Few would argue, however, the urgent need for superintendents and school board members to better understand each other in order to improve aspects of their personal and working relationships.

Since I’ve spent a lot of time working with, interviewing, and writing about them, I feel comfortable saying that I have a good understanding as to what makes the perfect school board member.  I believe school board members need to have to have a healthy sense of self and presence to those around them, but without the baggage of strong ego.  I believe a school board member should ideally view service and stewardship as the primary point of their job duty. The successful ones develop a clear understanding of what their contribution could be in their district and deeply understand the values that represent their community while being careful not to impose their own values. 

I floated the following questions to a few of my colleagues to learn exactly what they thought make the perfect school board member.  It is my hope that the insight their answers provide will encourage you to reflect on your own criteria for school board members. 

Dr. Sheehan:  What characteristics or personal traits do you believe define the perfect school board member? 

Superintendent #1:  Honest, humble, passionate for kids, engaged in the community, fair, and responsible.  Someone who has no interest in micromanaging and works diligently every day to keep the ‘main thing’ the ‘main thing’! 

Superintendent #2:  Certainly it would be somebody who is committed to all children.  You have to have a fierce advocacy for all children.  You cannot be myopic in what brought you to the board.  The perfect school board member has to have a very broad desire to serve and has to be a lifelong learner.  Great board members don’t come in thinking they have all the answers - in a learning organization such as a school district a big part of their leadership is about constantly learning and being an advocate for public education. 

Dr. Sheehan:  Finish this thought.  “I would be a great school board member because I would   ______?”

Superintendent #1:  “I would be a champion for children and have the courage to do the right thing”. 

Superintendent #2:  “Have a fierce devotion to serving all children”. 

Dr. Sheehan: If you were charged with creating the evaluation instrument for your school board members, what criteria would you use?  

Superintendent #1:  My evaluation instrument would certainly address whether or not they attend a sufficient number of school functions and activities.  Also, are they doing their homework and due diligence in terms of holding my staff and myself accountable to the finance that goes into the governance on the issue of policies that they’ve developed?  Do they attend professional, continuing education to learn more about the challenges of overseeing a school district?  My board and I start every meeting with celebrations of all the things going well in our district and then we go right into an instructional segment in which we just talk about challenges and failures quite candidly; specifically regarding teaching and learning.  Do they focus on the main things?  Lots of boards get focused on anything but the main thing.  I would hold board members accountable in an evaluation system that really took a look at what I consider to be the major components of the school district.  Also, is the policy sound?  Are they doing their homework? Are they willing to speak up and stand up and do the right things?  Do they check their egos at the door?  These are the important things that board members should be evaluated on. 

Superintendent #2:  I think everybody in the school district, whether he or she a school board member, superintendent, principal, teacher, or support staff, ought to have an evaluation instrument that ties back to the district’s strategic plan.  The board is going to help provide input into that plan.  They’re going to be playing a role in the creation of the plan and ultimately they are held responsible for the execution of the plan and so really everybody’s performance ought to be judged in relation to how that strategic plan is moving.  I think that’s really important.  I think boards should certainly have an evaluation instrument that reflects their theory of action and how are they committing to their theory of action in terms of the decisions they’re making and that they have actually established, as they should, their vision, mission, and core beliefs.  The evaluation instrument ought to tie back to those as well.

And then I think there are other areas such as successfully working with the superintendent and working in the community.  But again I think having everybody’s evaluation instrument aligned in large part to the strategic plan is a great way to keep everybody strategically focused on the same thing. 

Dr. Sheehan:  What types of things do your school board members do for you to show that they appreciate you? 

Superintendent #1:  They’ve recommended me for lots of different recognitions and honors, they compensate me well, but perhaps the thing they do for me that I appreciate the most is that they celebrate their superintendent by allowing me to function as a superintendent.  They support some pretty tough positions I’ve taken and they make my job easier by following their policies - they follow and understand the chain of command.  They know how to react to that parent that’s unhappy because they’re you know, ‘whatever’.  That makes a superintendent’s life tremendously better; if they just follow a reasonable communication system it is always in everyone’s best interest.  My board also doesn’t ‘overly govern’.  What I mean by that is that they don’t develop policies that are so overwhelming that we spend all our time doing stuff that’s not really focused on kids.  

Superintendent #2:  My board has been very good about having my evaluations on a timely basis and providing me with regular feedback.  I’m never surprised by anything that’s been in my evaluation.  I actually think that they’ve created a nice evaluation process where it matches our reporting out on our strategic plan updates, so about the same time as I’m reporting progress or lack thereof on our strategic plan, they’re providing me with feedback.  Overall, they’ve been very positive; they subscribe to that ‘public praise’, ‘private punishment’ philosophy.  There hasn’t been any private punishment, most likely because we keep a clear line of communication.

 I think the most important thing they’ve done for me is that if they’re concerned about something of if they have a question about something they call me before they go out to the public or go out to a school or go put something in the media and then we’re trying to clean it up.  The fact that the first phone call is always to me is very much appreciated and really helps in the management of the school district.  My board puts me in a position to succeed every day I come to work, providing me with strategic direction and guidance on ‘what’ the district will focus on and entrusting my leadership team and myself to the ‘how’.  We have worked hard together from day one to build our relationship around similar core values and beliefs and, as a result, we have a strong, trusting relationship.

Dr. Sheehan:  What types of things are your school board members not doing that you would like them to be doing for you?

Superintendent #I:  I would like to see school boards, generally speaking, be bolder about resisting the politics of education.  And the politics of education has gotten more, what I consider it to be, dysfunctional and functional.  School board members should not be afraid to stand up and say ‘we’re not going to do this.  It’s not in the best interest of our kids.’ 

Superintendent #2:  You know I’ve been very blessed.   I try to say this when I’m dealing with aspiring superintendents all the time...You get immersed in a job, a little bit of opportunity, the size of the district, the prestige of the district, the salary and the people; you end up not thinking a lot about the governance structure.  The two districts that I’d have the privilege of leading I thought very long about who was in charge of that district and so I felt like I went into these relationships with those things that I just spoke about, that we had similar core values and beliefs and that the boards would show courage.

I think one of things that is really important for boards, it’s not so much something they can ‘do for me’, but I think boards need to take a much more active role and an advocacy around public education.  I just think that there’s such a need right now in our country and in our state in particular.  I think that it’s very easy to get pulled into issues that impact the local school district but there’s so much national context, statewide context, that it’s really important for board members to be advocates.  Because at the end of the day you know they are political leaders and so they have to be immersed in the political process. 

The best school board members grow from their experience as no training can make a perfect school board member; it’s the result of acquired wisdom.  While on the job they develop skills such as problem solving, conflict management, politics, interpersonal relationships, and understanding the ethics of doing the right thing for all students.  The latter is a quality that many enter the position without; it is perhaps the most important of all skills to master and use.  If they are passionate about their work, thoughtful listeners, and never think of themselves as bigger than the job, they may someday accomplish great things.  My takeaway from these conversations with superintendents has to be the standard by which many said the best school board members measure each day’s work: “Did I do the best job I could today and did I make every decision based on what is best for all kids?”