Ethical Educator

A News Leaker
School Administrator, November 2016

Scenario: The school board president, who is not a supporter of the superintendent, at the request of the full board, invites the superintendent to submit a laundry list of proposals relating to his compensation and benefits package for next year’s expected renewal of a multiyear contract for consideration by the board during its executive session. The board president, however, then gives the discussion list to the editor of the local newspaper, describing them as demands by the superintendent. What does the superintendent do next?

Mario Ventura
The superintendent is in a delicate situation. In any event, the next step is for the superintendent to communicate to the entire governing board and the editor that a proposal for a salary and benefits package was submitted at the request of the entire governing board to the governing board president. The superintendent should explain that the proposal is a starting from which to begin negotiations with the governing board and not an ultimatum for a contract extension.

Strong communication and trust are two important variables in superintendent-governing board relationships. A positive working relationship is vital to ensure students, staff and the community have confidence in both the governing board and the superintendent. This incident and the knowledge that the board president does not support the superintendent may have caused serious damage to their relationship. It also will have a negative impact on the negotiation process for the contract extension.

The superintendent should obtain the guidance of an attorney as the negotiation process continues. Although it will bring an expense to both the superintendent and the school district, each party’s attorney can negotiate in the best interest of their client. Any conflict that arises during negotiations can be handled between the attorneys.     

Maggie Lopez:
The remainder of the board needs to be informed of the board president’s actions. The superintendent should seek help from the district/board legal counsel regarding this incident and next steps in informing the remainder of the board. A discussion should occur with legal counsel, the board president, the full board and superintendent on what has occurred and boundaries crossed regarding legal and operating protocols.

It is the board’s responsibility to address the board president’s actions and then inform the superintendent on how the issue will be resolved. Resolution should include clarification with the newspaper editor that this was not a list of demands from the superintendent, but rather a list of proposals intended as a working document for executive session discussion.

The superintendent may want to discuss his legal rights with his own attorney in light of this occurrence. He needs to consider whether the behavior of the board president is representative of the full board or whether the relationship issue with the board president is separate from the remainder of the board. How the full board addresses the board president’s actions will be important information for the superintendent. Trust has been broken and considering the close working relationship needed between superintendent and board president, if the board president remains as the leader for the board, it could be a challenging situation.

The superintendent could try to use this occurrence as an opportunity for him and the board president to clear the air and try to work out their differences. If the board president remains non-supportive of the superintendent, it could impede the superintendent’s ability to move work forward in the district. Since the superintendent is considering a multi-year contract, he may want to consider whether he can continue his work in the district in light of what has occurred.

Shelley Berman:
The board president’s action appears to be an intentional effort to undermine the public’s perception of the superintendent. Or, since the board president does not support the superintendent, the president may regard the list as excessive compensation for a job not performed to her or his satisfaction. In either case, the board president acted hostilely and without the knowledge or authority of the full board.

The worst thing the superintendent could do is to confront the board president publicly—whether in person or in the media. Such action would appear defensive and might escalate the conflict with the board president. Hopefully, the superintendent’s document explicitly framed the written list as options for discussion. If not, he may wish to privately clarify that intent with the board.

Given that he was responding to a request from the full board and that other board members are supporters, his best course of action is to allow this matter to be an internal issue when the board convenes in executive session. Other board members may very well be concerned by the president’s action and come to the defense of the superintendent.

He may also wish to meet with the board president to hear the rationale for releasing the document and to clarify that the items were options, not demands. The superintendent will need to continue working with the board president. Striving to understand this particular action from the board president’s perspective may help build a more positive relationship over the long term.

Sarah Jerome:
There is an old adage that comes quickly to mind when reflecting on this scenario: "Superintendents are well advised to keep their bags packed and sitting by the front door."

This is clearly a despicable act on the part of the board president.  It is important to determine if the board president acted alone or at the direction of the other board members. While it is challenging to lead a school district without the board president's support, it is impossible to lead without the majority of the board's support. The superintendent should ask to meet with the entire board in executive session to discuss this matter. If it is determined that the entire board or majority wanted the list sent to the editor of the local newspaper, it is a bad sign of no support and the superintendent should either figure out a way to build a working relationship with the board or start a search for a new position as soon as possible. If the board president acted alone, the board members who support the superintendent should reprimand the board president in executive session and take steps to appoint a new board president.

In either situation, a meeting with the editor may be useful. It is important for the editor to understand the true context of the list that was created at the board's request. If the list is printed in the newspaper, the superintendent may want to have the public know these items on the list were not "demands."  However, it can be a lose/lose situation because relatively few communities are eager and enthusiastic about administrator compensation no matter how highly regarded the administrator is.

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Sarah Jerome, a retired superintendent in Arlington Heights, Ill., and an AASA past president; Maggie Lopez, a retired superintendent in Pueblo, Colo.; and Mario Ventura, superintendent, Isaac School District, Phoenix, Ariz.