Beware of the Culture
November 01, 2016
Appears in November 2016: School Administrator.
At her very first board meeting, Superintendent Alice Determination saw refreshments had been placed at a table near the entrance to the meeting room. The 4:30 p.m. committee meeting before the regular board meeting at 7 p.m. would be heavily attended and the superintendent knew the topics on the committee agenda were contentious.
To set a positive tone, Determination (a pseudonym) stood near the table and offered refreshments to attendees. Who would think this act of hospitality would be portrayed on social media with a caption chastising the superintendent for having a tax-strapped school district provide refreshments for attendees?
Two colleagues, Bette Lang and Pam Kiefert, both retired superintendents, and I interviewed10 superintendents and board members from several states about the role of culture and customs in the governing of school district affairs. Superintendents representing districts from 1,000 to 100,000 students shared examples of cultural nuances thatwere unique to their communities and demanded individual attention and care.
They raised these questions, among others:
- When should the superintendent claim/report vacation, sick leave or personal leave for doctor appointments for self or family?
- Should the superintendent host the board at home or a restaurant? Should alcohol be served?
- Should the superintendent belong to a local service club? If so, which one(s) and who pays?
A superintendent beginning her or his journey should turn to school board members to successfully navigate the social and political considerations particular to the community. For the most part, they want to help and will offer good advice.
An effective working relationship with the board will enable the superintendent to solicit information on the culture and customs — something that ought to begin during the interview process.
Small details matter and superintendents are watched closely. Knowing the rituals and traditions of the homecoming parade in the fall and graduation ceremonies in June is important. These practices have developed over the years and have a reason and purpose. Changes should not be undertaken lightly.
Think of school board members as the bridge to the community and capitalize on this aspect of the relationship. Board members typically have lived in the community most of their lives and know the local taboos. Superintendents are seen as “newcomers” regardless of how many years they have worked in a district. Seeking legitimate advice from boards can foster team spirit and expedite the superintendent’s connection to the community.
There are practical measures a superintendent can take to address the effects of community customs.
When hired, the superintendent’s first question to the board should be this: How do we do things around here? What do board members believe to be unique customs and traditions in how business is conducted?
In addition, the board president and superintendent should establish a communication plan that addresses special interest groups, whose influence on school governance can be significant.
Board members should be encouraged to make the superintendent aware of localized practices and taboos, and the superintendent should ask board members for their empathy when mistakes are made. Early on, superintendents should ask about what events or programs must remain intact at the start of a superintendent’s tenure.
Superintendents should be aware of the grapevine operated by district employees — the friends and relatives of board members who work in the district and have direct access to spread information about the superintendent’s actions.
Administrative assistants are a key resource about longstanding practices. They typically have the history of the school district, a good working relationship with the board and want the new superintendent — experienced or not — to be successful.
Thomas Evert, a retired superintendent in Janesville, Wis., is a co-authorwith Bette Lang and Amy Van Deuren of Working Toward Success: Board and Superintendent Interactions, Relationships and Hiring Issues.