Deftness and Tact Before a Board Election

Type: Article
Topics: Board Relations, School Administrator Magazine

February 01, 2018

Board-Savvy Superintendent

THE SCHOOL BOARD election was going to be close, and a superintendent in a small, rural town, hoping to retain the current board makeup, publicly and without reservation endorsed the incumbent over his opponent.

On election eve, as precinct after precinct reported, the results became increasingly clear. The incumbent was not going to be re-elected. The new board member would be the person whom the superintendent had publicly campaigned against. So much for getting off on the right foot.

Room to Maneuver

School board elections often are stressful for board members and school communities. However, the stakes can be much higher for superintendents. The movement of seated members off and new board members in can be the precursor to career-altering events, especially if the superintendent is dealing with controversial or high-profile issues.

This leads us to consider the superintendent’s role leading up to and during an election. How involved should the superintendent be with specific candidates? Is there room for a superintendent to remove some of the guesswork by helping ensure that specific candidates consider running for board positions?

The latter is much like succession planning, but with one drawback — there’s no guarantee a board seat will automatically be gained by the candidate who is being groomed as a successor. Still, there is definitely an advantage to knowing who is seeking a board seat and capitalizing on opportunities to begin a dialogue with candidates prior to the election. Cultivating professional relationships early can support a collegial relationship.

Watching Favoritism

Consequently, it goes without saying, if you work with one candidate, you must be willing to extend equal time and opportunity to work with all of them unless you want to risk marginalizing the support from a person you are not grooming as a potential member of the governing body.

Attempting to support particular candidates by using positional authority can represent a real danger to the superintendent by creating the perception that he or she is promoting a personal agenda by seeking to tilt election results through favoritism.

So the short answer is that, if you want to groom candidates to improve their odds of being elected by being better informed and to insulate hard-fought initiatives from the potential peril of board member turnover, you must be an equal opportunity schmoozer.

Okay, so what about involvement in pre-election activities, especially when a candidate is clearly your favorite? Quite honestly, openly supporting one candidate over another by campaigning or writing testimonials, even for the best of reasons, is courting disaster. That does not imply that a superintendent who is also a registered voter in the district where he or she is employed should avoid voting. However, discretion is important and the savvy superintendent is wise enough to keep his or her voting preferences private.

Openly supporting a school board candidate who subsequently loses to an opponent who was not supported immediately creates a barrier to any ensuing professional relationship. It is the equivalent of a school board’s split vote to hire the superintendent because the decision to hire was not unanimous. There is just no way to begin the relationship with mutual trust and respect.

Controlling Oneself

Ultimately, the best offense before an election is really a good defense. That simply means that an effective governance team has the best opportunity to attract like-minded candidates to fill board positions.

Still, school board elections sometimes are contentious, and it is not unusual for facts to be exaggerated and half-truths promoted to fuel bids for school governance reform. Regardless, the superintendent is the CEO. It is his or her responsibility to manage the community’s multimillion-dollar process of education at the bidding of the board as the employer.

However well intended the support may be, attempting to manage the board through the election process is akin to putting your head in the mouth of the lion.

MICHAEL ADAMSON is director of board services for the Indiana School Boards Association in Indianapolis, Ind.


Michael T. Adamson, director of board services, Indiana School Boards Association