Ethical Educator

A New Board’s Hard Right Turn 
School Administrator, May 2021

Scenario: A school board election brings onto the board a majority of members who are hard line on employee issues. The majority pushes district leadership, which has tried to create a supportive and compassionate culture contributing to quality staff performance, to address discipline, attendance and other issues with the strongest consequences and exert strict limits on discretionary benefits. The new board members view the culture as not sufficiently demanding or accountable. Should the superintendent adopt their hard-line approach?

Max McGee:

Updating the resume should be the superintendent’s first order of business. If his core values regarding employee relationships are not aligned with those of the board majority, he will not succeed and should keep options open for future employment in districts that are more aligned with his core values and beliefs. 

His second action should be to meet with each newly elected board member individually to learn why each wants a hard-line culture and to share quantitative and qualitative data that show the value of the current culture. Then he should schedule a facilitated governance retreat to determine the philosophical direction the board will pursue. Ideally, he would be able to make a compelling case for either sustaining the current direction or achieving a compromise on a new vision that balances compassion with some aspects of the new board members’ desires for more accountability.

Maggie Lopez:

The superintendent probably already knows these issues exist. Regardless, the superintendent needs to talk with all of the board and gather information before adopting any approach. 

The board should provide feedback, examples and share any evidence related to their concerns. Does all of the board agree on these issues not just the new members? How and why did they come to this conclusion? Where did they get information related to these concerns? 

Ultimately this information will let the superintendent know if there is a match between what he knows the concerns to be and what the entire board is saying. The superintendent needs to handle this discussion in a manner that is non-threatening to the board and does not make the superintendent appear defensive but rather like an interested problem solver. It will be tricky! 

If in the end the superintendent ascertains that the concerns brought forward are valid and align with what he or she knows to be the issues, then the board has in essence given the superintendent leverage to move forward with changes. If the majority’s concerns are more about pushing their agenda or trying to run the district, the superintendent will spend the next year(s) demonstrating that their perception of the district isn’t accurate and that there is accountability. 

Ultimately, the superintendent will have to refocus new board members and the entire board on their roles and the board work they need to do, which is not to run the district or take over the work of the superintendent.

Shelley Berman:

Some school board members are elected thinking that educators are a privileged group who receive unwarranted salaries and benefits for a job requiring only about 180 workdays a year. Others, accustomed to a reward-and-punishment management philosophy from some competitive business environments, bring with them an attitude that strong discipline and dismissals are necessary to make people work harder and to get rid of the slackers who aren’t generating sufficient academic gains among students. 

The public messaging of these views is often articulated as the need for organizational accountability, but the policies these board members pursue point to a desire for administration to take a hard line on salary, benefits, evaluation and discipline, and an even harder line on union issues and negotiations. 

Although organizational accountability issues are important, these individuals fail to understand that, whether in business or in education, a positive organizational culture is the most effective vehicle for producing beneficial results for the organization and job satisfaction for employees. They also fail to realize that an organization can’t punish or fire its way to greatness, but that greatness instead emerges when employees feel supported to collaborate, take risks, grow and learn. Leadership that incorporates understanding, compassion and approachability in turn inspires employee effort, commitment and dedication. When people are valued and appreciated by their leaders, they respond with a level of unity and trust that enables the organization to tackle difficult issues and meet or even surpass its goals.

A shift to hard-line attitudes and policies can have an incredibly destructive impact on a school district. Employees respond by protecting themselves through isolation, narrowing their performance to what is acceptable, resorting to organizing union opposition, or leaving the district for one with more positive support for staff. A hard-line approach from the board and/or administration throws the district into internal turmoil and distracts from achieving strategic goals and addressing problems. Although it may take a very short time to create a negative, antagonistic, or dysfunctional environment, it can take years to rectify and recover from it. 

In schools and districts that are implementing or sustaining strong social-emotional learning programs and are creating caring classroom communities, the hard-line ethos can be debilitating. It can cause staff to take a hard line with students, thereby undermining the responsiveness that is core to these programs. Teachers, in particular, can find themselves bewildered as administrators model a form of discipline that is antithetical to the developmental form of discipline recommended for students. 

In this case, the superintendent faces the need to educate the new board members—either through his or her own counsel and advice or by bringing in a consultant to work with the board—on their role in shaping and delivering organizational culture. The superintendent can also highlight the accomplishments of staff at board meetings and in board memos and district communications to help board members recognize the prevalence of positive results and the value of staff efforts. 

If these efforts are not successful in changing the board’s approach, the superintendent can serve initially as a buffer against board attitudes and decisions, remaining responsive to staff while addressing the needs of the board for accountability. However, such actions can only go so far without significant tensions emerging between the board and the superintendent. If the board’s hard-line attitude remains, the superintendent may be better off seeking to lead a different district where there is an appreciation of the impact of a positive organizational culture. 

MaryEllen Elia:

A school board election very often can result in the new board trying to make change, often without knowing the background that led to specific policies and the important results of those policies. A good example is a district culture that has been purposefully developed over time (under a prior board) to support a positive work environment that ultimately serves students and teachers well.

When a new board is elected, there is much work to do as a team to develop a level of understanding about the rationale of policies, processes and procedures -- the why, the how and the results. In this case, the data on staff discipline, attendance and the other areas need to be discussed in a board workshop for an open exchange of views. It is the superintendent’s responsibility to provide the board with the connections that exist between the approach the leadership takes on providing a supportive culture to staff and the dedication that staff provides to ultimately support students. Whatever changes result from this open discussion, the openness is essential and hopefully provides a “way of work” to move forward.


The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; MaryEllen Elia, senior fellow, International Center for Leadership in Education and retired superintendent; Maggie Lopez, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Glenn "Max" McGee, a former superintendent and regional president of Hazard, Young, Attea, and Associates in Schaumburg, Ill.