Board-Savvy Superintendent

Climate Audits, When Wisely Conducted
By MICHAEL T. ADAMSON/School Administrator, November 2019

IT IS NOT UNCOMMON when new school board members take office, especially following a contentious election, that they are targeted as sounding boards for school employees and community members who are dissatisfied with district leadership for whatever reason.

School board associations and consultants who provide school board member training typically urge board members to direct these individual complaints through the line of authority to resolve their concerns. But it can be extremely difficult for new board members to have full confidence in the normal process for resolution. This is especially true if contentious issues are brewing or controversial issues are in play.

There is little argument that school board members should work closely with their district superintendent and that the relationship between the governing body and CEO should be a complementary one built on mutual trust and respect. They are (or should be) on the same team because they are on the same side of the governance table.

However, board member trust never should be extended blindly, and savvy superintendents know they must continuously validate why they are trustworthy.

Engaging an Auditor
Not surprisingly, when information conflicts with that of district administrators, board members often will pose questions. “How can we be sure we are receiving accurate reports from our superintendent and administrators? What further evidence should we have?”

These questions also are raised by superintendents new to a district who want a better understanding of the pulse of the school district as they begin a new position.

Climate audits are a great way to get the answers, but the value of those audits are heavily contingent on the consultant or agency that administers the audit, compiles and interprets the data, and then delivers the results. Most important to that process is being confident that the audit provider can effectively filter the “noise” out of the audit.

If a district has realized a significant amount of change in its recent history, is in the midst of a controversy or is emerging from a significant emotional event, the aftermath of those circumstances often will transfer to the audit. Being able to separate temporary issues from legitimate systemic issues that require remedial attention is absolutely critical for there to be confidence in the audit and/or the auditor.

A Faulty Diagnosis
Not every person who claims to be a credible resource for conducting climate audits is equipped to do so. Two Indiana school districts engaged the same individual to conduct a so-called climate audit. However well-intentioned the person was, it became clear afterward that the person drew incorrect conclusions about root causes. The resulting damage to school leaders’ credibility and staff morale took years to overcome and was not remedied until the underlying cause of the districts’ issues were uncovered.

What had been diagnosed by the auditor as unrest caused by poor leadership decisions by the superintendent, the school board and building-level leaders actually were issues brought about by a combination of unavoidable changes resulting from diminished financial resources and the required actions to comply with new state legislation. Unfortunately, the consultant had looked at the issues superficially and because the audits were shared publicly, the real issues became more difficult to unmask and resolve effectively.

The lesson here: Check references before engaging just anyone to conduct your audit.

Remedial Steps
Audit results that reveal areas where remedial or corrective actions are recommended should go beyond sharing strengths and deficiencies. Areas of strong or satisfactory performance speak for themselves, but where deficiencies are noted, there should be suggestions outlining activities or remedial action steps instrumental in restoring the health of the organization.

Climate audits can be effective tools, but you must be smart about choosing your consultant.

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