Creating a Strong School Board-Superintendent Relationship

03/03/2017
Superintendent Leadership
Alexis Rice

With the average tenure of a school superintendent being only 3.2 years, it’s possible that a school board member could go through hiring a superintendent during every four-year term they serve.

Turnover is more usual than not. So how do a superintendent and the school board develop a successful working relationship? And how is that successful relationship maintained? After years of working with school boards and district leaders, we’ve compiled the best research and anecdotes for successfully fulfilling these vital roles.

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The critical place to start is at the beginning. A school board should have a vision in place before hiring a superintendent. According to National School Board Association’s (NSBA) Key Work of School Boards,1 a vision is about where the district is going and what kind of district is being created. It should inspire and serve as a forward-looking tool. The community — including administrators, teachers, students, parents, businesses, government agencies and residents — should have input in the development of the vision and in communicating the vision once it is established. Communication is essential. The district must inform and engage all stakeholders through the process. Once a vision is in place, the school board should seek a superintendent who shares the same outlook.

NSBA’s research arm, the Center for Public Education (CPE), developed the Eight Characteristics of Effective School Boards2 and found that key to success is that school boards must “lead as a united team with the superintendent, each from their respective roles, with strong collaboration and mutual trust.” CPE found that boards and superintendents in “high-achieving districts” came together creating a strong working relationship, refining their visions over time, assessing district strengths and weaknesses. However in “less successful districts” boards and superintendents were not aligned with a lack of collaboration with a board that may not hold the superintendent accountable for goals.

Building relationships takes planning, which includes a strategic plan for the school district based on the vision initially created by the community. It all boils down to student learning, and every school district should cite student achievement as its top goal. 

Going back to NSBA’s Key Work, it states, “Having a clear path on how that will be achieved is of upmost importance. It is up to the school board to approve the planning process and include all stakeholders and to the superintendent to incorporate participation, ensure the integrity of the planning process, ensure staff development to carry out the planning process, ensure that the recommendations of the strategic planning team are presented to the board for action and coordinate periodic review of the plan.”

So how do relationships that start strong go bad? Often it has to do with roles: understanding the role of board versus the superintendent is also important as failing to understanding these roles can lead to mistrust, conflict, lack of trust and miscommunications.

The Association of Alaska School Boards noted in Clear Board and Superintendent Roles,3 that, “in order for boards and superintendents to begin clarifying their roles, agreement must be reached on a few common elements. In general, boards are elected by the community to set priorities, establish policies and evaluate the outcomes of district operation. Superintendents identify needs and policies, develop regulations, provide leadership and manage the day-to-day operation of the district.”

When a board decides to micromanage the superintendent’s decisions on management, it can get to be an uncomfortable relationship. Here’s an example where the proper roles come into play: The school board needs to allocate resources based on the plan, but it is the superintendent’s job to recommend resources needed to support the plan through the budgeting process and to conduct periodic reviews.

According to NSBA’s Key Work, communications between the superintendent and board members must be timely, consistent, and focused on the needs and expectations of both with mutual respect. A culture of transparency and collaborative leadership to build upon success is necessary.

For instance, if one board member asks a question, then, most likely, all board members would be interested in the answer. Equal treatment is the key. It is also important to not spring new ideas at a board meeting, but to give the board members time to process new ideas, especially if a school board meeting is being broadcast. Additionally, a school board must abide by state open meeting law and state and federal freedom of information acts, thus communications need to transparent and open. It is important to consult with your school district attorney to ensure compliance.

Howard Carlson, superintendent of Arizona’s Wickenburg Unified School District and co-author of So Now You’re the Superintendent noted in “Three Keys to a Successful Superintendent/School Board Relationship,”4 for American Association of School Administrators that, “Treating school board members ‘equally’ is the first lesson that must be considered. This concept is tougher than it seems in that equal is not always the same. By this I mean you may have a Generation X board member who is technologically proficient and desires to receive updates electronically, while another board member, who is more senior in age, would prefer a phone call. The key here is that both receive equal treatment regarding the information provided, but not necessarily the method in which it is delivered.”

One way superintendents can keep in regular communications with their boards is weekly e-mail updates that highlight major issues and events from the week.  Carlson noted, “Board members appreciate being kept in the loop, and it is always better to hear information from you as opposed to them hearing it from someone in the community. One communication method I have found to be effective over the years is the “Friday Update.” The update is an informal communication that is sent electronically to the entire board each Friday highlighting major events and issues addressed during the week.”

A written policy that lays out the relationship between the board and superintendent also can help to alleviate future conflicts. For example, Virginia’s Arlington Public Schools (APS) states in their policy:

“The Board recognizes, honors and values the Superintendent’s experience and expertise in instructional and administrative matters. The Superintendent recognizes, honors, and values the Board’s experience in issues related to Arlington Public Schools and the Board’s connections and responsibilities to the community it represents.”

The policy goes on to state the responsibilities of both parties to each other, the educational community and the community at large. (Check out APS’s website, www.apsva.us for the complete policy.)

In these days of transparency and expectations, one of the best ways to achieve this is to have a superintendent evaluation in place. The Minnesota School Boards Association and Minnesota Association of School Administrators recommends comprehensive elements in an evaluation including, ways to improve performance; including a realistic and measurable criteria for review of success; connection to school district improvement goals; student achievement and community vision; utilization of opportunities for personal and professional development; and recognize the importance of a superintendent’s leadership work within the school district and throughout the community.

There are many templates and evaluations available online. Some of the best places to check are the state school board associations’ websites.

Our advice is simple, building trust and respect between the superintendent and school board is the best way to foster — and keep — a positive and long-lasting relationship to be unified in advancing student achievement and school district success.

8 Characteristics of Effective School Boards

  1. Effective school boards commit to a vision of high expectations for student achievement and quality instruction and define clear goals toward that vision
  2. Effective school boards have strong-shared beliefs and values about what is possible for students and their ability to learn, and of the system and its ability to teach all children at high levels.
  3. Effective school boards are accountability driven, spending less time on operational issues and more time focused on policies to improve student achievement.
  4. Effective school boards have a collaborative relationship with staff and the community and establish a strong communications structure to inform and engage both internal and external stakeholders in setting and achieving district goals
  5. Effective school boards are data savvy: they embrace and monitor data, even when the information is negative, and use it to drive continuous improvement.
  6. Effective school boards align and sustain resources, such as professional development, to meet district goals. According to researchers LaRocque and Coleman, effective boards saw a responsibility to maintain high standards even in the midst of budget challenges.
  7. Effective school boards lead as a united team with the superintendent, each from their respective roles, with strong collaboration and mutual trust.
  8. Effective school boards take part in team development and training, sometimes with their superintendents, to build shared knowledge, values and commitments for their improvement efforts.
Alexis Rice is a managing partner of K12 Strategies, an education communications consulting firm. www.k12strategies.com. Alexis@k12strategies.com. Alexis’s research and insights on online strategies and engagement has been featured on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” NPR, CNET, CNN, The Washington Post, PC World, Associated Press, and in numerous books. Alexis received her Master’s degree from The Johns Hopkins University in Communication in Contemporary Society with a concentration in Technology Communications and earned a B.A. from The George Washington University in Political Communication with a minor in Journalism.
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Issue 18.3 | Winter/Spring 2017

Southeast Education Network

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