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What Does Your Superintendent Think About You?

Two Massachusetts school chiefs discuss qualities of effective school boards and what makes the board/superintendent relationship work.

June, 2015 By Brian Sheehan

Concerns about the demanding nature of the position of the superintendent coupled with a declining number of qualified applicants to fill anticipated vacancies continue to make the problem of district leadership stability a topic of concern. National data on superintendent tenure reveal that turnovers account for most superintendent changes and that a majority of these turnovers are voluntary. When asked in a recent national study to identify their reasons for leaving their most previous position, superintendents’ most frequent response was that they desired to assume a new challenge. This finding is significant as it tells us that most superintendents are not being let go by their school boards, they are electing to leave their posts.

As superintendent-school board relationships are routinely reported as a cause for mobility in the position, I thought it appropriate to ask a couple of my colleagues exactly what they thought makes a good school board member. The insight their answers provide will help school board members in a number of ways; from improving working relationships with their superintendents to luring a new leader to their district.

What characteristics or personal traits do you believe define the perfect school board member?

Superintendent #1: Honest, humble, passionate for kids, engaged in the community, fair, and responsible. Someone who has no interest in micromanaging and works diligently every day to keep the “main thing” the “main thing.”

Superintendent #2: Certainly it would be somebody who is committed to all children. You have to have a fierce advocacy for all children. You cannot be myopic in what brought you to the board. The perfect school board member has to have a very broad desire to serve and has to be a lifelong learner. Great board members don’t come in thinking they have all the answers - in a learning organization such as a school district a big part of their leadership is about constantly learning and being an advocate for public education.

Finish this thought. “I would be a great school board member because I would ______?”

Superintendent #1: “Be a champion for children and have the courage to do the right thing.”

Superintendent #2: “Have a fierce devotion to serving all children.”

If you were charged with creating the evaluation instrument for your school board members, what criteria would you use?

Superintendent #1: My evaluation instrument would certainly address whether or not they attend a sufficient number of school functions and activities. Also, are they doing their homework and due diligence in terms of holding my staff and myself accountable to the finance that goes into the governance on the issue of policies that they’ve developed? Do they attend conferences and other training opportunities to learn more about the challenges of overseeing a school district? My board and I start every meeting with celebrations of all the things going well in our district and then we go right into an instructional segment in which we just talk about challenges and failures quite candidly -- specifically regarding teaching and learning. I would hold board members accountable in an evaluation system that really took a look at what I consider to be the major components of the school district. Also, is the policy sound? Are they doing their homework? Are they willing to speak up and stand up and do the right things?

Superintendent #2: I think everybody in the school district, whether he or she is a school board member, superintendent, principal, teacher, or support staff, ought to have an evaluation instrument that ties back to the district’s strategic plan. The board is going to help provide input into that plan. It’s going to play a role in the creation of the plan and ultimately it is responsible for the execution of the plan and so really everybody’s performance ought to be judged in relation to how that strategic plan is moving. I think that’s really important. Boards should certainly have an evaluation instrument that reflects their theory of action and how are they committing to their theory of action in terms of the decisions they’re making and that they have actually established, as they should, their vision, mission, and core beliefs. The evaluation instrument ought to tie back to those as well.

What types of things do your school board members do for you to show their appreciation?

Superintendent #1: They’ve recommended me for lots of different recognitions and honors, and they compensate me well. Perhaps the thing they do for me that I appreciate the most is that they allow me to function as a superintendent. They support some pretty tough positions I’ve taken and they make my job easier by following their policies - they follow and understand the chain of command. They know how to react to unhappy parents. That makes a superintendent’s life tremendously better. My board also doesn’t “overly govern.” They don’t develop policies that are so overwhelming that we spend all our time doing stuff that’s not focused on kids.

Superintendent #2: My board has been very good about having my evaluations on a timely basis and providing me with regular feedback. I’m never surprised by anything that’s been in my evaluation. I actually think that it’s created a nice evaluation process where it matches our reporting out on our strategic plan updates, so about the same time as I’m reporting progress or lack thereof on our strategic plan, I’m getting feedback. Overall, members subscribe to the “public praise, private punishment” philosophy. There hasn’t been any private punishment, most likely because we keep a clear line of communication.

I think the most important thing they’ve done for me is that if they’re concerned about something of if they have a question about something they call me before they go out to the public or go out to a school or go put something in the media and then we’re trying to clean it up. The fact that the first phone call is always to me is very much appreciated and really helps in the management of the school district. My board puts me in a position to succeed every day I come to work, providing me with strategic direction and guidance on what the district will focus on and entrusting my leadership team and myself to the how. We have worked hard together from day one to build our relationship around similar core values and beliefs and, as a result, we have a strong, trusting relationship.

What types of things are your school board members not doing that you would like them to do?

Superintendent #1: I would like to see school boards, generally speaking, be bolder about resisting the politics of education. And the politics of education has gotten more, what I consider it to be, dysfunctional and functional. School board members should not be afraid to stand up and say, “We’re not going to do this. It’s not in the best interest of our kids.”

Superintendent #2: I try to say this when I’m dealing with aspiring superintendents all the time: You get immersed in a job, a little bit of opportunity, the size of the district, the prestige of the district, the salary and the people, and you end up not thinking a lot about the governance structure. The two districts that I’d have the privilege of leading I thought very long about who was in charge of that district and so I felt like I went into these relationships with those things that I just spoke about, that we had similar core values and beliefs and that the boards would show courage.

One of things that is really important for boards, it’s not so much something they can ‘do for me’, but I think boards need to take a much more active role and an advocacy around public education. I just think that there’s such a need right now in our country and in our state in particular. It’s easy to get pulled into issues that impact the local school district but there’s so much national and statewide context that it’s really important for board members to be advocates. Because at the end of the day you know they are political leaders and so they have to be immersed in the political process.

About the Author

Brian A. Sheehan (bsheehan@maldenps.org) is a teacher leader at Salemwood School in Malden, Massachusetts.

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