Board-Savvy Superintendent

Gaining Gravitas That Comes With Seasoning
By NICHOLAS D. CARUSO JR./School Administrator, August 2020

SOMETIMES YOU can be totally right and wrong at the same time.

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working with hundreds of school superintendents. Many are seasoned veterans, but some are brand new to the role. I’ve been impressed with the professionalism and expertise of these newcomers. Most have great skills to be successful.

However, I have noticed one area where new superintendents sometimes run into trouble: dealing with elected, mostly non-educator governing boards.

An Unfamiliar Mix

Throughout your career, you have dealt primarily with fellow education professionals. Everyone starts with common understandings about what can and should happen to reach desired outcomes. Then you bring board of education members into the mix, and things sometimes can go awry.

As superintendent, you’ve studied and prepared diligently for the job. You’ve got a strong knowledge of the curriculum. You know what to do to put in place a new instructional plan for lifting achievement. You have a good working relationship with other community leaders.

So why does it seem like you are getting resistance from some members of the board of education?

Savvy Over Time
Most superintendents tend to develop an important leadership trait over time. Call it gravitas, confidence or self-assurance, but the experiences you have over a career in educational administration can lead to developing effective communications skills that go beyond just knowing what to say and do, but how to inspire others, particularly those on the school board.

Regardless of what you understand protocols to be, the relationship between a superintendent and the board of education can run the gamut from “Hands-off — we set policy and you run the schools” to “What did you do from 12 noon until 1:30 this after-noon?”

You may feel the board hired you to be the district’s CEO, which gives you a certain level of authority, but some of your board may not see eye-to-eye with you on where the lines of authority are situated. Even though they might not serve in the trenches in education, they still have valid opinions and expectations of your work that matter.

Approaching the board with a level of gravitas often can instill confidence in you by your board and community. Your solid approach to issues can assist you in that. It is not enough to know everything you need to approach your job, but also your nonverbal cues inspire credibility and respect.

However, there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. I’ve seen times when a superintendent proposed something to a board that had met with some resistance from either staff or the community. In one case, instead of presenting his case to the board and inspiring an informed choice, the message was more of “this is the only way!” This superintendent refused to look at compromise solutions that would have tempered the community’s angst. 

In the end, the board did vote for a compromise resolution, against the objection of the superintendent. Instead of helping shape the final product, the board did it without his input. This exchange eroded the board’s confidence in the superintendent, which had long-term consequences for his career.

Regaining Control

If you find yourself having issues with some of your board members, take stock of the situation and deal with it quickly. If it is one or two board members, work with the chair to ensure the majority are driving the bus, not just a loud minority. Encourage the board to take back control of their work. The chair should be your biggest advocate and the key to a successful relationship with your board.

You can seek help. Most state superintendents’ associations, plus AASA, provide mentors. Take advantage of what they offer. Observe how the seasoned veterans “work” the job. They often can persuade their boards to go along with uncomfortable ideas, not just because they made a good case for it, but because their confidence in themselves and their staff was very reassuring to the board.
NICK CARUSO is senior staff associate for field service and technology with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education in Wethersfield, Conn. Twitter: @gibsonjunkie