Board-Savvy Superintendent

Peppering Staff Out of Turn

by Nicholas D. Caruso Jr.

Real scenes from school communities:

A school board member likes to wander around schools all day and talk to staff, asking, “So, what is really happening around here?”

The business manager complains that the head of the board’s budget committee is parking himself in his office for hours and expects the business manager’s undivided attention while the board member is on his inspection tour.

The board chair wants to set up an office next to the superintendent’s in the central-office building so he can be more readily available to talk to staff with complaints.

Board members, at monthly meetings, pepper staff directly with questions as they sit in the audience, even when the staff members are not part of the presentation or discussion at the time.

Air of Confusion
Certainly members of the board of education need to understand what is happening in the district if their decisions are going to be meaningful. However, a difference exists between a casual conversation with a staff member and an inquisition. A board member going behind the superintendent’s back undermines leadership and confuses staff as to the chain of command.

So how do we establish proper lines of communication?

Start with a meeting with the board to establish clear ground rules. Board members shouldn’t be excluded from ever communicating with staff, but there should be a clear understanding of what is on the table and what should be off-limits.

Clearly define with the board what information is easily collected and shared. There are times when a board member requests a report that will entail hours of staff time to develop. In situations such as these, the superintendent might suggest the board member talk to the board chair and request the matter be placed on an agenda. Any issue that will take resources away from the job at hand should be a request of the full board, not an individual. If the interested party can’t convince a majority of board members this is important data, then it shouldn’t take staff attention.

When the information requested is such that you can provide it in a timely manner, you should disseminate it to all members of the board, not just the person who requested it.

Clear Expectations
In the case of board members parking themselves in someone’s office (particularly your own), start by explaining that your staff has responsibilities that must be accomplished and it is inappropriate for board members to just drop in on a whim and consume staff time. If board members are looking for particular information, they should contact you and you will direct the issue to the appropriate person.
If you feel communication might be expedited by direct communication, you certainly can suggest the board member talk to the staff member. But you should insist the board member make an appointment with a clear expectation of time limitations.

Board members must be reminded they have no more authority than any other member of the public. I’m sure they would not want any member of the public waltzing into a principal’s office and interrupting them for hours at a time.

In one case, a superintendent I know had to send a memo to all staff (and copied to each board member) reminding them the board worked through the superintendent, and if approached by a board member with a request for information, staff should redirect the member back to the superintendent.

One common reason board members feel the need to go out behind the superintendent’s back and discover things on their own is because of a lack of trust. If you feel trust is an issue, talk to the board member. If these types of communication issues are built into the board culture, you should work with the chair to get the rest of the board to delineate clear channels for communication. A retreat to discuss problems in communication not only helps clear the air, it allows for a conversation about the impact of those phone calls, e-mails and drop-in visits.

Often the board members in question just doesn’t really understand their role. It’s not that they want to interfere, but they are engaged in their role and want to learn and understand everything. Rather than shut down that enthusiasm, talk to them and direct their energy in a positive direction.

Systemic Realignment
Finally, I believe it is most important to reinvent the work of the board. As long as boards see themselves as in charge of a school system, rather than a leader for academic success, they will continue to look for things rather than ideas.

Focus the board on goals and the vision, and bring conversations to the table that speak to 21st-century learning, classrooms of the future, brain development — all the things that are so important to the future. Develop a passion for bringing the schools into the future; it will be a lot easier to get everyone communicating on the same wavelength.

Nick Caruso is the senior staff associate for field services with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education in Wethersfield, Conn. E-mail: ncaruso@cabe.org