Board-Savvy Superintendent

Whom on Staff to Invite to Board Meetings?
By RYAN DONLAN/School Administrator, August 2019

AWKWARD QUESTIONS INEVITABLY arise at board meetings. In fact, one might argue that in good governance, they should.

The ability of a board of education to field questions effectively depends largely upon who on the leadership team is invited to board meetings and who sticks around through the community comment session.

Board-savvy superintendents know it is wise to keep the following in mind when deciding whom to invite: insulation and separation.

On-Hand Expertise
Insulation involves ensuring those in central-office roles with specific expertise stay in the room to field questions asked by the board president or board members. Directors of finance, transportation or human resources are logical candidates.

Having upper leadership with specific knowledge on hand for the entire evening helps superintendents stay prepared and allows the board to receive information that sound governance requires.

Separation involves ensuring the superintendent and the board have some distance between themselves and public pressure for quick answers from concerned constituents.

Minutia is best redirected to building leaders but not addressed while the meeting is taking place. A board that spends time on minutia runs the risk of micromanagement and may be more focused on the wrong thing, such as:

» Protocol rather than policy;

» Staff management rather than personnel capacity; and

» Matters of the moment, not matters for the future.

It is natural that board members want to “fix” the heartfelt concerns of their friends, neighbors or customers. Yet, despite these temptations, when members of the public have concerns, the best a board can do is to pause and take them under advisement.

This gives the administration time to “do their homework,” providing in due time a good answer in line with how the board expects business to be handled. This also keeps the board at the 10,000-foot level, where it needs to be.

Again, one layer of insulation and another of separation.

Quiet Exits
Building administrators’ presence at school board meetings also may be important. Yet there is a time for them to be there and a time for them to go home.

Once school building reports are received, a quiet exit is best taken by those running schools directly, before community remarks. Keeping building administrators around for the duration rarely heads off problems. It more often runs the risk of creating them.

In The Hero Maker: How ­Superintendents Can Get Their School Boards to Do the Right Thing, co-author Todd Whitaker and I describe how weaker superintendents allow their leadership teams to get bludgeoned at meetings so that they themselves are protected.

In doing so, they miss the point that everything that goes wrong in a school district is really the superintendent’s responsibility, and everything that goes right should be credited to someone else, typically at the building level.

A smart hesitation instead of a quick response is more respectful and allows those on all sides to save face.

Satisfying Complainants
Superintendents and board members have great pressure and even bigger responsibilities — the former to lead and the latter to govern. Effective superintendents serve as shields for their boards of education, keeping building-level potshots away for everyone’s benefit.

One layer of insulation and another of separation do just that.

Board-savvy superintendents realize one added benefit: Encouraging those aggrieved to “contact someone tomorrow” has an uncanny way of making 80 percent of issues brought to the board go away, allowing for the more legitimate 20 percent to be addressed more effectively.

Many complainants will move on to something else if required to call someone the next day, so no further follow-up is necessary.

RYAN DONLAN, a former superintendent, is an associate professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Ind. Twitter: @RyanDonlan