Acting Consistently Can Stem Nepotism

By Cheryl Ryan/School Administrator, May 2015
I recently addressed a group of school board members and administrators on the topic of nepotism — something I’ve come across frequently in my work as a board development consultant.
    Superintendents and board members can agree that “hiring the best,” “keeping the best” and eventually “replacing the best” are among the most important tasks for those who govern public school districts. They may or may not agree on their exact roles, however, and that’s where perceptions of nepotism often creep in.
    Board members largely understand that staff hiring decisions belong to the superintendent and administrators. However, as with other matters of importance to the district, it is the board’s role to ask salient questions. When board members have reasons (real or perceived) to doubt the best hiring decisions have been made, superintendents can be assured of increased board involvement.
Old Boys Club
Erasing all doubt about the decisions involved in hiring may not be possible, but ensuring the processes before, during and after the hire are rock solid is where a savvy superintendent can maintain order when chaos threatens.
    When working to build confidence in the instructional and operational teams within the district, the last thing a superintendent needs is for anyone to think the Old Boys Club is alive and kicking. Nepotism, or the bestowing of business or political favoritism upon an individual based on a personal or family relationship, is wholly negated when processes are open, transparent and followed consistently.
    Many school districts are among the largest employers in their communities. Couple this with the reality that in most small towns everyone literally knows everyone else. It can become difficult to not hire another employee’s relative. This is where consistent processes ride in to save the day.
    The superintendent must ensure school district policy is maintained throughout the application and interview process and that appropriate supervision and evaluation channels are respected. The superintendent must ensure positions are open to all interested parties and that each vacancy is marketed or advertised via the same channels.
    The superintendent must not put barriers in place for one position (“we’re going to have an interview team for this position rather than a single interviewer”) that do not exist for other vacancies of the same title or level. A current job description and an understanding of the priorities for the hire must be discussed among all stakeholders at the time of the initial posting.
Equitable Processes
Say a new curriculum director is needed. The superintendent shares the job description, the organizational chart, etc., with the board, advising them the current director will be leaving in April, well before the school year is over. One board member says, “We can’t have that position vacant for long. Make sure whomever is hired is ready to go May 1.” A second board member says, “Finding someone with a track record in gifted education is critical.” A third board member says, “We have too much going on here to do much on-the-job training. Let’s get someone with deep experience.”
    The superintendent then moves the process along until there are two finalists. One of them can begin right away, is fairly well-qualified and lives in the district but will have more of a learning curve. She’s also the elementary principal’s wife. The second candidate comes highly recommended, can seemingly do the job “in his sleep,” but can’t begin before July 1.
    In this case, the superintendent must share his or her own priorities while conversing with the board about theirs. Then, if the principal’s wife is selected, she will have been hired for the right reasons. If she is the best person for the job (due to her more immediate availability), it is the superintendent’s responsibility to assure the board this is the case.
    The superintendent who can satisfy his or her board that district goals will be advanced with each new hire because fair and equitable policies and processes are consistently followed is one who will likely enjoy strong ongoing support from each member.

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