Board-Savvy Superintendent

Clamping Down on a Roving Board Member
By Michael Adamson /School Administrator, April 2017

A school board member serving in a district in the Southwest was spending an inordinate amount of time making unauthorized visits to the district’s schools, dropping in unannounced to engage and allegedly intimidate, bully and threaten administrators and staff members when they did not support or agree with his personal agenda opinions.

Consequently, late last year the superintendent restricted this board member from entering any school in the district other than to attend a public event or when specifically given a written administrative invitation.

Certainly, many superintendents and board members familiar with the situation admired and applauded the bold measures taken by this superintendent. However, superintendents facing similar behavior by a board member are often reluctant to follow this example, even in comparable situations.

The cause of their reluctance to follow similar measures to control aberrant board member behavior — when identical behavior by a parent or local resident would not be tolerated — is easy to diagnose but more difficult to cure. The cause is a reluctance to invite and accept the consequences that challenging authority might bring, combined with a misunderstanding of the superintendent’s leadership and management expectations regarding their subordinates.

Recognizing Authority
The savvy superintendent understands and distinguishes authority as real or implied. Real board authority exists and is governed by legislation that extends specific rights and privileges when its members are convened in an official, advertised meeting to conduct business. Individual members have no personal authority, except as may be extended to them under limited circumstances to represent the board’s interests in other venues.

Occasionally, a board member misinterprets the extent of personal authority outside of publicly advertised meetings, capitalizing upon the implied but imaginary positional authority as a member of the board. However, that implied authority only exists to the extent it is permitted by those who similarly misinterpret it as authentic.

Of course, even if superintendents know a board member is abusing the official position, they often are reluctant to act to modify or control it. Confronting a board member who willingly and repeatedly wanders outside his or her defined role can be uncomfortable for obvious reasons. It is much easier to try to dismiss or even ignore the turmoil that is left in the wake of a misguided board member. Needless to say, this is not an advisable path to take. The roving board member, while perhaps not bullying the superintendent directly, is interfering with other employees for whom the superintendent is ultimately responsible.

It is in these circumstances that the true resolve of the superintendent/board team is tested and the leadership of each challenged. Although disruptive board members are really the responsibility of the board to correct and/or contain, that obligation necessarily includes the involvement of the superintendent to administer during those times when the board is not convened.

The best deterrent to a situation like the one described is an adopted code of conduct for a board member that explicitly details all district privileges extended to him or her. The team’s collective effort to eliminate the opportunities for interference in the educational process is not only effective but necessary. Of course, a brave superintendent can go down that path alone, but an effective leader ensures the support of the other members of the governing board before acting.

Best Prevention
Preventative policies and procedures are preferable to corrective action, and these should receive first consideration if not already in place. If they exist, familiarizing and reviewing them with all board members and school personnel is strongly encouraged.

A board member who violates the school district’s own policies cannot easily defend the consequences, and a conscientious superintendent should never sacrifice subordinates by ignoring the bully in the building, even if it is a board member.

Michael Adamson is director of board services with the Indiana School Boards Association in Indianapolis, Ind. E-mail: