Executive Perspective

A Perennial Check on Board Relations
By Daniel A. Domenech/School Administrator, April 2020

THERE IS NO DENYING the fact that a superintendent’s success is highly dependent on the relationship with the school board. When the board and the superintendent function as an effective management team, good things will happen. Dysfunctional relationships often lead to short superintendent tenures.

My good friend Tom Gentzel is the executive director of the National School Boards Association, and every year we do a joint session at both of our annual conferences on the topic of school board/superintendent relations. Over the years we have discussed how dysfunctional relations can be the fault of the school board, the superintendent or both. We also discuss the strategies that can lead to and maintain an effective management team.

After each of our conference sessions, Tom and I will be approached by board members and superintendents with questions about relevant issues in their school systems. I hear from board members who say they are supportive of their superintendent but that too often the superintendent does not communicate with them and proposes ideas at board meetings that catch them off guard. Good communications with school board members will maintain their support. Catching them off guard is to be avoided.

Public Visibility

Conversely, I hear from superintendents who have experienced a change in board membership and now face opposition to the plans that had been endorsed by the previous board. This is a situation where community engagement on the part of the superintendent is critical.

Spending time with all segments of the school community is time-consuming but worth every minute. Visibility scores high when people get to see the superintendent in person and get an accounting of what is going on in the district and even ask questions and express concerns. We see that today with candidates for public office. Taking selfies with constituents is a bonus — although kissing babies no longer is acceptable.

In essence, superintendents should campaign as if they were running for office, detailing their “platform” for the district and offering the rationale behind it. Recognizing that good ideas from the public have been the source for the plan or for making changes in the plan also will garner endorsements for the superintendent. Employees, parents, the business community, citizens without children in the schools and senior citizens are the groups that should be engaged.

This type of community engagement contributes to a high probability that the district’s plan and the board members supporting it will receive the backing that leads to implementation. This takes time on top of what’s already needed to complete the administrative tasks, but no superintendent expects to work an eight-hour day and a 40-hour week.

Team Building

Tom and I also hear from board members about superintendents who assume that, by virtue of their position, they are in charge of the district and therefore empowered to make unilateral decisions. While true that administering the district is the superintendent’s responsibility and there are times when board members may attempt to micromanage, it is also true the superintendent works for the board and that nowadays, contract be damned, they work at the board’s pleasure. Consequently, the superintendent must decide how to successfully deal with the “intrusive” board member. This is where a strong board president can be the best ally by intervening on behalf of the superintendent.

Annual retreats before the start of the school year, with just the board, the superintendent and a facilitator, foster team building and are a good way to establish an agenda and goals that garner the support of the entire management team. This also is an opportunity for the superintendent to assert the role of educational leader and for board members to express their interests and concerns. This may not be possible in states that require all meetings of the school board to be public but, in states that allow it, take advantage.

I refer to superintendents as “champions for children and public education.” Sooner or later a superintendent will need to follow her or his moral compass and take a stand on behalf of children who may not have advocates. The superintendent’s voice may be in the minority, but it is the right thing to do. Such moral courage may come at a price, but it is a price worth paying if it means standing up for the services, the programs and the equal educational opportunities that are denied to many students.

DANIEL DOMENECH is AASA executive director. Twitter: @AASADan