Ethical Educator

A Swerve Outside the Lines
School Administrator, March 2017

Scenario: A board of education member contacts the superintendent over a weekend with a request. She wants a letter of reprimand placed in a teacher’s personnel file based on his comments to a student over an episode in school involving a second student. The superintendent responds immediately, telling the board member she is “out of your role.” At the subsequent school board meeting, the superintendent, with 32 years of administrative experience in four school districts, reminds all members their role is not to be involved in personnel matters. Did the superintendent respond appropriately?

Shelley Berman:
Right message but wrong way to communicate it. The superintendent is correct. Board members are policy makers, not administrators, and should refrain from involvement in personnel matters. Personnel matters, including the investigation into an incident and the consequences for any violation, are private and protected from public intervention. Undue influence by a board member violates the individual’s rights and opens the district to liability.

If a board member is concerned about a teacher’s behavior or learns of something that warrants investigation, he or she should report it to the superintendent. From that point on, it is up to administration to handle it. A better approach in this case would have been to thank the board member for bringing the problem forward, to explain that any action is dependent on an investigation, and to diplomatically affirm that the matter will be handled appropriately — even though rights to privacy prevent the outcome from being shared with the board member.

By issuing a public reminder to all board members, the superintendent risks damaging the relationship with all of them — both the individual board member who may feel she was being admonished in front of her peers and the other members who may feel they were unfairly tarred with the same brush in the eyes of their constituents. It is far better to hold an annual work session where the board reviews and affirms its operating norms and guidelines. In that way, it isn’t the superintendent who holds responsibility for ensuring compliance with these norms, but the board as a whole.

Sarah Jerome:

The superintendent responded appropriately but might add a diplomatic note by stating he or she will investigate the matter.  Valuable information can come to the superintendent from many sources including board members. Information about an alleged wrongdoing by an employee is worthy of an inquiry to verify the facts.

In addition to reminding the board of its appropriate role, which does not involve supervising personnel, it is important to remind the board that everyone — including students and staff — deserves due process in all matters.

Maggie Lopez:
The superintendent was correct in stating to the individual board member who called him that she was “out of her role” or “out of her lane.” However, following up with a blanket statement in a board meeting, is not the best approach. The remainder of the board may not have clarity on the request that was made of the superintendent. It would be more prudent for him to review the personnel request in executive session and discuss appropriate board roles and actions on matters related to personnel and this specific issue.

Additionally, making a statement at a board meeting creates curiosity among those at the meeting as to why the superintendent is making such a statement to the board. The superintendent cannot discuss specifics regarding his statement at the meeting because it pertains to a personnel matter. This leaves those at the board meeting wondering what the statement is regarding. The superintendent’s comment also might be misinterpreted as the superintendent scolding the board in public. This could encourage similar behavior on the part of the board in the future towards him.

Mario Ventura:

The relationship between the superintendent and the governing board is influenced by political, social, cultural and institutional factors unique to each school community. The push and pull of these influences can impact how the superintendent and governing board behave toward one another. In some school districts, the superintendent’s response may be appropriate and within the norm of communication. In other districts, this type of communication could have a negative impact on the relationship between the superintendent and board.

In this scenario, the superintendent needed to be direct and set boundaries for the board members. The publicly stated reminder to the entire board could lead the community to perceive conflict exists between the board members and the superintendent. This could have a negative impact by creating tension within the district.

To promote a strong collaborative relationship, the superintendent should ask clarifying questions to better understand the board member’s need to get involved in this issue. Steps can be taken to reassure policies and procedures are practiced to investigate and, if necessary, reprimand employees for inappropriate behavior. Another consideration is to conduct a yearly retreat to review the district strategic plan, values and the roles of the governing board and superintendent.  Clarity of each party’s role and respectful communication help promote an effective relationship between the superintendent and the governing board that will serve to mediate conflict when it arises.

Each month,
School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Sarah Jerome, a retired superintendent in Arlington Heights, Ill., and an AASA past president; Maggie Lopez, a retired superintendent in Pueblo, Colo.; and Mario Ventura, superintendent, Isaac School District, Phoenix, Ariz.