Board Operations

An internal committee can help the school board and superintendent communicate and thrive.

April, 2015 Doug Eadie

A few years ago, I worked with a superintendent who was a virtuoso educational leader – an eloquent interpreter of her district’s educational mission who cared passionately about student achievement and classroom performance and who was an outstanding leader of educational innovation in her district.

But she didn’t relish wearing another one of the important chief executive hats: manager-in-chief. This is the task of making sure that well-designed administrative systems were in place and functioning effectively. Part of the problem was that she’d managed to climb the professional ladder to reach the top spot in her district without having to learn certain administrative ropes. She’d started as a middle school teacher, becoming an assistant principal, principal, and associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

Now ensconced in the superintendent’s office, for her first couple of years she’d relied on her chief financial officer to play the chief administrative role and followed the “no news is good news” philosophy where administrative matters were concerned.

The inevitable result – underperforming administrative systems – had become a major problem in board members’ eyes by the end of her second year, and her working relationship with the board was growing ever more tenuous. The board was especially concerned about the human resource management system, in light of increasing turnover and growing morale problems in several buildings.

The issue of superintendent inattention to a critical facet of the chief executive role in the district could have continued to fester, and might well have ended this highly creative educator’s CEO tenure. Fortunately, her board’s governance committee made a timely intervention.

In an intensive day-long session with the superintendent, the governance committee hammered out an agreement that she would devote more attention to administrative matters, with special focus over the coming year on human resource management, including recruiting a new associate superintendent for human resources.

As this case illustrates, a board governance committee can serve a powerful relationship maintenance function. Frequently called “board operations,” the governance committee typically focuses on two major functions:

  1. board coordination and management, including developing board member governing knowledge and skills, developing the board agenda, and coordinating the work of the other standing committees; and
  2. managing the relationship with the superintendent, including ongoing monitoring of the relationship and resolving any issues that might pop out and conducting the annual superintendent performance evaluation.

Usually headed by the board president and consisting of the chairs of the other board standing committees and the superintendent (as a non-voting member), the governance or board operations committee is the obvious candidate for management of this precious but fragile working relationship. Without an explicitly accountable committee of this kind, board-superintendent relationship issues can all too easily go unnoticed and be allowed to fester until the relationship is irreparably damaged.

Communication guidelines

Not long ago, a school board member I was interviewing told me a story about flawed board-superintendent communication. This board member had been approached at the supermarket by a couple of constituents the week before. They were interested in learning more about the multi-cultural dialogues that had recently been initiated at the middle school with funding assistance from the local community foundation to cover the cost of a facilitator.

They had both heard the superintendent describe the initiative at a recent Rotary luncheon meeting. The superintendent had been speaking on issues related to the increasingly diverse student population in the district.

As this angry board member related to me, she was speechless – literally – since she wasn’t aware of the initiative. She was also tremendously embarrassed. When she called the superintendent about the incident later that afternoon, he, of course, was apologetic. He explained that he was planning to brief the whole board about the initiative at the upcoming board meeting.

But this was clearly shutting the proverbial barn door after the horse had escaped. This not-so-board-savvy superintendent had violated a cardinal rule of effective board-CEO communication: The chief executive should never let the board be caught off guard.

Open, honest, and frequent communication between the school board and superintendent is without question an important means of keeping the working relationship healthy. In this regard, three communication channels that have proved useful at the formal end of the spectrum include:

  • Making sure that the superintendent’s report at the regular board business meeting updates board members on developments that they should be aware of and are unlikely to have learned about through their committee work. The multi-cultural initiative described above would fit in this category. The superintendent’s report is also an excellent vehicle for sharing with board members notable superintendent activities, such as meetings with the board of county commissioners, the CEO of the local community foundation, or the director of the state department of education, and attendance at state and national conferences.
  • Using a weekly or bi-weekly superintendent e-letter to board members to summarize major developments the board should be aware of both inside and outside the district.
  • And taking advantage of the less formal environment of the board’s standing committee meetings to apprise board members of developments in the committees’ respective functional areas.

About the Author

Doug Eadie (doug@dougeadie.com) is founder and CEO of Doug Eadie & Company. He is the author of 18 books on board and CEO leadership. His most recent is Governing at the Top (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

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