Board-Savvy Superintendent

Finding Visible Roles for Your President

by Doug Eadie

O

ne of the board-savviest superintendents I’ve worked with in recent years, someone who headed a school district in a medium-size Midwestern city, fielded a call from the president of the county’s community college one day. The county administrator had asked the college president to chair a high-level task force that was charged with developing recommendations for attracting and retaining new businesses to the community.

BSav-Eadie-web.jpgDoug Eadie


The new task force chair, who already had recruited a senior vice president from the chamber of commerce, along with a couple of college professors and some prominent business and union leaders, asked the superintendent if she would be willing to serve on the newly established economic development body, representing the K-12 education sector. The superintendent responded that she appreciated being asked, but that she recommended her school board president serve instead.

“He’d be ideal,” the superintendent told the task force chair. “He’s not only a highly successful entrepreneur, having built a profitable and growing mail order business, he’s also expressed a strong interest in getting involved in efforts to stimulate economic growth in the county.” She went on to say her board president is “well versed” on education issues and can represent the K-12 education sector “very capably” on the task force.

It turns out that the board of education president did a bang-up job on the task force, achieving a key personal objective while also very effectively raising relevant K-12 issues.

The board-savviest superintendents I’ve observed and worked with over the past quarter-century know that one of the critical aspects to their success as the school district’s chief executive officer is building and maintaining a close, positive and productive working relationship with one of their pre-eminent stakeholders, their school board president.

With the president as a partner and advocate — rather than just a passive bystander or, worse, an adversary — the superintendent is far more likely to gain school board backing for recommended strategic decisions and policies. Supportive board presidents, working in close partnership with their superintendents, also can help generate community support for key superintendent initiatives, such as redrawing school boundaries, strengthening business involvement in the schools or passing a bond referendum.

Supportive Steps
I’ve observed effective superintendents take three important steps to build solid working relationships with their school board presidents:

• They help their board presidents achieve their personal objectives.
The superintendent whose story opened this column took the trouble to learn that one of her new board president’s highest personal priorities was volunteering in the community development arena and that he was especially interested in strengthening the local economy. She also knew that as a successful entrepreneur her board chair was likely to be a powerful contributor to the work of the newly formed task force.

Other superintendents I’ve observed over the years have turned over speaking opportunities to board presidents who have desired to beef up their platform skills, have involved their presidents in meetings with community officials the presidents have said they would like to know better and have promoted their presidents for membership on important community boards they’ve indicated an interest in.

• They adapt to their board president’s’ decision-making style.
A few years ago I observed an otherwise bright and capable superintendent damage the working relationship with his board president by violating this tried and tested strategy, imposing his own style on a board president who marched to a different drummer.

A bit of a classic policy wonk, the superintendent was addicted to the use of well-reasoned, crisply written think-pieces as a tool to educate key decision makers on complex issues and to build support for his positions. Unfortunately, his president needed to chew over pros and cons in face-to-face meetings, and resented the superintendent’s peppering him with written material rather than taking the time to sit down, one-on-one, to hash over issues.

• They happily share the limelight with their president.
Superintendents are reasonably well paid for their service to their communities. Board presidents typically are compensated little if anything for volunteering their time and energy to school district affairs.

One of the most important forms of nonmonetary compensation that board-savvy superintendents provide to their board presidents is public recognition. I’ve seen superintendents refer speaking engagements to their president, share the lectern with the board president at service club luncheons, feature their president in school district publications, include their presidents in news media briefings and ensure they are front and center at ribbon cuttings.

Doug Eadie is president of Doug Eadie & Co. in Oldsmar, Fla. E-mail: Doug@dougeadie.com