Board-Savvy Superintendent

Who's Responsible for Meeting Agendas?
By MICHAEL T. ADAMSON/School Administrator, October 2018

A COMMUNITY MEMBER phones into the school district’s central office with a request to the superintendent to be placed on the monthly board meeting agenda. The superintendent politely informs the patron that he would have to call and make that request of the school board president.

The patron thanks the superintendent and places a call to the board president, only to be frustrated when told that the request needed to go through the superintendent.

Clearly there was a disconnect somewhere. Whose agenda is it anyway?

A Logical Duty
Unfortunately, that scenario occurs far too often and this confusion clearly seems to be more a product of traditional practice than current school policy. A quick sanity check regarding roles and responsibilities can provide the obvious, best answer to the agenda ownership and preparation question.

Regular school board meetings are primarily for the school board to officially approve administrative recommendations that permit the district to operate. Consequently, that agenda is filled with items that require official action by the board. So while the agenda represents items for board action, it has little to do with board contributions to the agenda.

Superintendents are effectively the CEOs of public education, charged with the responsibility of managing and directing the personnel and financial operations of multimillion-dollar enterprises — public school districts. School boards operate from a governance oversight perspective, not as hands-on participants in district operations, at least in the sense their involvement typically only permits them to brush against public education at regular intervals when meeting to conduct the official business of the district.

It follows that the person who is immersed in the business and operation of the district and who is most reliant upon the official approval to act on behalf of the school district, is the superintendent. Logically, agenda preparation will largely be the responsibility of the superintendent, with input from staff members responsible for key areas of management in the smooth operation of the district.

That does not mean that school board members have no voice in agenda preparation, only that they rely on their CEO to effectively manage the majority of agenda items. This ensures that appropriate matters are presented in a timely manner for the board, with the appropriate background information, to make informed decisions on behalf of the district.

Superintendents routinely review proposed agendas with their board presidents or a subcommittee of board members prior to regular meetings in preparation for the business meeting and solicit concurrence with the agenda or for other items that the board may wish to address.

Germane Nature
Board members are well advised to allow for three things before making additions to their agendas that are not driven by their superintendent: (1) the item needs to be presented with the appropriate background information to allow the board to be as fully informed as it can be regarding the agenda item; (2) there needs to be sufficient time for all board members to review the information; and (3) if a decision is expected or if a conclusion is desired, an administrative recommendation should be included for the board’s consideration.

Having a specific policy that governs entertaining agenda items from the community also is advised to ensure that the items are suitable for a regular meeting agenda and/or that they require board action. Regardless, the board first should address items that are germane to the operation of the district. Often superintendents whose board members meet at least two times per month use one of those meetings as a working session to share information or view presentations regarding future agenda items, hear administrative recommendations, receive community input or have conversations that better prepare their boards for future action on specific items or recommendations. These information meetings allow future business meetings to be dedicated solely to the business of the district. 

MICHAEL ADAMSON is director of board services for the Indiana School Boards Association in Indianapolis, Ind.