Board-Savvy Superintendent

Communicating Early, Often and Deliberately
By DAVID BARKER/School Administrator, May 2019

AFTER SERVING FOR nine years as a superintendent in a small school district, I was looking forward to a new position in a larger district. Although I learned many things during my first superintendency, I hadn’t fully taken to heart advice I once received from a mentor about superintendent-board relationships. He advised me that taking care of and communicating with the school board must be the highest priority.

While student success remains the highest priority of the district, a superintendent’s work with the board provides the path for that success to occur. Without teamwork from a supportive board, any attempts to achieve great things are doomed to flounder.

Four practices have served me well as a superintendent.

» Get to know each board member.
When I first started my new job in my current district in 2006, I made it a point to meet with each board member one-on-one. I took each out to breakfast or lunch and chatted about personal matters as well as a few school district topics he or she wanted to discuss.

By getting to know each board member on personal and professional levels, I was able to create relationships early on and gain a better understanding of some of their “hot-button” issues — topics they were most passionate about or had concerns with. I certainly felt more comfortable communicating with the board, both individually and collectively, after I got to know each of them a little better.

Sometime later, I learned the seven board members considered the individual meetings in an informal setting as positive an experience as I did. I continue after each school board election to create these opportunities and am considering doing this for returning members as well.

» Communicate early and often.
In one of the first board meetings in my new district, what I thought would be a quick and easy personnel action item turned into quite a surprise. One board member was not happy with one of my hiring recommendations due to past issues with a particular staff member, issues that I, as a new superintendent, was unaware would cause problems. The board ended up not accepting my recommendation, and we had to go back through the hiring process for the position.

This taught me a valuable lesson about communicating with the entire board on agenda issues early in the process. I started to ask for questions and clarifications after board agendas were distributed in advance of meetings to ensure I was better prepared to answer any concerns board members might have.

» Go slow.
Over 13 years of dealing with dozens of board members, I have learned to get out in front of proposed initiatives, policy changes or ideas sooner to slow the process a little. By introducing proposals “unofficially” at earlier board meetings and then following up with weekly memos on progress, I’m able to keep important topics at the forefront of the board members’ thinking.

In one example from the past, the district sought a major change in a building schedule, introducing the measure months early in hopes for adoption in April. For some board members, the additional communication provides adequate time to wrestle with an issue, examine and understand all sides and generate concerns or questions for which I can provide information as necessary.

» Prioritize communication.
When things are going well in a district, it can be tempting to become complacent and scale back communication with the board. Superintendents have considerable demands on their time and those in small districts have additional responsibilities to address.

This is reality, yet it doesn’t diminish the ongoing need for the superintendent to keep up board communication. I schedule reminders on my calendar to make time for communicating with the board.

Each superintendent must find his or her best way to reach the board, which may mean using different avenues for each member. It will be time well spent and goes a long way toward building successful relationships.

DAVID BARKER is superintendent of Fremont County School District 1 in Lander, Wyo. Twitter: @dbark13