New York State School Boards Association

Supts. are from Mars, BOEs from Venus

On Board Online • July 18, 2011

By Lynne Lenhardt
Area 7 Director

Research shows that high-achieving school districts have school boards and superintendents that function as a team. But what, exactly, constitutes good teamwork? Board members and superintendents sometimes have different perspectives on this. To get our administrators’ views and suggestions, I sent a four-question survey to all Area 7 superintendents and let them know the answers would be confidential. The results are below. 

1.  Describe the most important characteristics of a really positive and productive superintendent/board working relationship.

   While certain words and phrases kept cropping up in superintendents’ answers (trust, respect, communication and “clearly defined roles”), each superintendent emphasized something else.

One superintendent stated that the relationship should be one in which each party respects the skills and experience of the other and where both parties trust the actions of the other as well-intentioned. Another said it’s essential to be honest with each other and take the time to really listen. A third felt that the relationship should be based on a shared mission and jointly developed organizational goals and objectives.

Every superintendent mentioned communication, often with a sub-theme of “no surprises.”  Knowing about a question or issue before a meeting allows the superintendent to respond better, one said. Another superintendent emphasized frank, open, oral dialogue because relying on written communication often leads to misunderstandings.

One superintendent’s hints on communication were reminiscent of the advice one might get from a marriage counselor. This superintendent noted that communication is a two-way street, adding that superintendents “cannot read minds.”  If board members have issues, they need to communicate them.

Lastly, good boards are unified; superintendents said they appreciate it when the entire board supports a decision even if there is a split vote. Also, boards and superintendents that work well together provide opportunities for mutual growth. 

2. In what ways does your board help (or hinder) you in resolving difficult issues?

One superintendent indicated that the board provided additional eyes and ears to “read”  the community and to share any concerns they heard. Another said the board helps to resolve difficult issues when they serve as a community-based sounding board in a genuine conversation about the issue.

Superintendents praised boards for listening and waiting until relevant information is gathered before responding to a concern. Talking through the issues and listening to each other’s perspectives help to reach consensus. Unsurprisingly, personal conflicts among board members were cited as interfering with resolving difficult issues.

Resolving issues becomes more difficult if board members grandstand at meetings in an effort to show community members how vigilant they are, superintendents said. And it’s frustrating if board members remain silent on an issue, allowing the superintendent to move forward on it, and then suddenly express negative opinions. According to superintendents, it is even worse when a board makes a decision and then backs down due to outside pressure.

While it’s common for board members to be the first to receive a concern or complaint, they should resist the role of “problem resolvers.” One superintendent explained why this is undesirable even with the best of intentions. First, it sends a message to the public that concerns should be channeled to board members for the most immediate attention. (Who wants that?) At the same time, it disempowers the superintendent. Instead, a board member should ask citizens to go through the proper channels to obtain answers or resolution. Also, superintendents said they want their boards to support them in how they resolve a complaint or concern. Boards need to remember that issues are usually complex and they usually have limited information from hearing one side.

Finally, the board is a hindrance when they forget that they are a board, not a collection of independent contractors. Superintendents point out that they have only one boss, not five or seven or nine.  

3. With a myriad of other distractions, how do you help your board focus on student achievement?

Most superintendents responded that they ensure that every agenda includes student presentations, student achievement reports, faculty presentations, or student or faculty recognition events. They also felt that demonstrating with data where a district was successful and where improvement was needed should be provided to the board on a regular basis. It was evident that the focus, especially from a goals standpoint, should always be on student learning and that all decisions be made with student achievement in the forefront.

Some superintendents said a focus on student achievement is tough to maintain. Interestingly, one superintendent in a high-achieving district felt the board was too involved in student learning because they do not believe that students are achieving as well as the community wants! 

4. Describe any pet peeves you may have with your board.

Some superintendents reported that they had no pet peeves while others indicated items such as micromanaging, hidden agendas, and “surprises” at board meetings.

Another form of unwanted surprise is not informing the superintendent of emails or letters that board members receive that weren’t cc-ed to the superintendent.

In the protocol department, superintendents do not like it when board members encourage staff to share with them (instead of the appropriate administrator) their concerns or issues. Nor do they like it when board members frequent schools during the school day to “observe.” While they consider it their duty to keep boards well-informed, superintendents don’t think they should be expected to report every minor incident.

One superintendent’s headache involves board members who advocate for or against something based on their like or dislike of a specific staff member. Another pet peeve involves board members who say one thing behind closed doors and something different in public.

Some superintendents feel their boards are impatient with the amount of time needed to accomplish goals.

At this time of year, superintendents sometimes encounter newly elected board members who have a preconceived notion that people are hiding information. Then there’s the board member who only cares about one issue and constantly brings all conversations back to it.

Superintendents also get frustrated at board members who don’t do their homework and waste time by asking questions regarding factual matters in their packets. Similarly, if board members miss a meeting, they should avoid raising a settled topic or, worse, insist on rehashing the topic and then call for a new vote!

Lastly, board members need to understand that individual board members have no more authority than any other community members except when they are functioning as an entire board. (Hear, hear!)

I want to thank all the superintendents who responded so thoughtfully to my survey. Space constraints limited the number of comments I could cite, although all were worthy. I’m sure many board members reading this will take your candid input to heart, or use it to spark a conversation with their own superintendent, resulting in better superintendent/board relationships. 

Editor’s Note: A NYSSBA service called the Custom Improvement Program sends facilitators to individual districts to lead on-site discussions on any subject, and roles and responsibilities of boards and superintendents is a popular topic.

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