Board-Savvy Superintendent

Divided Boards and Dissension
BY HOWARD C. CARLSON/School Administrator, February 2022

THE INCREASE in political polarization, dissension and arguments over pandemic mitigation strategies and rude behavior by some board of education members is making it hard for school districts to govern their operations effectively. It’s tied to wider disruptions to civil dis-course across society by loud community factions, and it’s truly disturbing.

Superintendents are struggling with these conditions when working with their boards.

Based on my 17 years in the superintendency and my observations of others in the profession, I have some thoughts about possible leadership responses.

Three Perspectives

A superintendent dealing with a divided board or polarizing board member might consider this first step: Assess the paradigm from which each individual is operating. Once you understand the underpinnings of his or her actions, you then can determine how to assist them moving forward.

Often when dissension exists, individual board members are operating from one of three paradigms: (1) The board member is unaware of the true facts related to the issue; (2) The individual is acting on the basis of strongly held philosophical beliefs; or (3) The board member is agenda-driven and thus is not participating in good faith.

With paradigm 1, the board member is taking a position based on flawed information or lack of clarity. The goal with this individual is to create cognitive dissonance. In other words, provide them with creditable information from a reliable source, which shows why what they are saying or believe is not factual.

No one wants to be wrong, so I am not advocating that you challenge them on their stance, but rather provide them with evidence and facts. Note that it is important to follow up with the individual to ensure the information has been reviewed and is understood. This approach opens the door to further discussion in a less politically charged environment.

Personal Beliefs

In paradigm 2, the board member is acting on strongly held philosophical beliefs. In this case, the superintendent might expose the individual to other perspectives, especially from individuals or organizations the board member respects. Seeing others whom they align with look at the issue differently can have a powerful impact. Of course, it is likely an alternative perspective from others with similar beliefs does not exist, but it is still important to make sure this board member has an opportunity to understand the other side of the argument.

Individuals with strongly held beliefs often live in an echo chamber where everything they hear and read comes from one perspective. Therefore, this individual needs to hear all sides of the issue to make the best decision possible as a school board member.

Paradigm 3 board members tend to be the most difficult to work with because they have a predetermined outcome in mind. The agenda-driven individual is not only assuming a particular conclusion, he or she also is invested in pursuing a power play.

Those in this category often believe they have public support to achieve their goals and, although not stated, are operating from this position. Unlike the board member who holds a strong individual philosophical belief, the agenda-driven board member plays to an audience and is working behind the scenes to strengthen leverage.

Taking on the agenda-driven individual comes down to taking a firm stance on a well-researched, consensus-built position. The individual must come to grips with the fact that the public sees the issue a different way. We know important concerns normally line up on one of two sides and the alternative view must have representation in the board room. At a minimum, opposition signals to the agenda-driven board member that he or she will be challenged when pursuing their existing path.

The key is to begin by understanding each board member and his or her operating paradigm. We need to move from subjective to objective analysis, from focusing on personalities to intent and motive. If you endeavor to do so, you will be better prepared to assist the board on a corporate level in making the best, most objective decisions possible.

HOWARD CARLSON is executive administrator (consultant) of the Greater Phoenix Educational Management Council in Phoenix, Ariz. He maintains a blog, Accelerated Leadership Wisdom. Twitter: @HowardCarlson2