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Butting Heads with Your School Board? Strategies for Productivity

It’s never a good sign when a superintendent sues her own school board.

Last week, Renee Foose, superintendent at Howard County Public Schools in Maryland, did just that.

Foose’s complaint alleges that the Howard County school board stripped her of vital powers, such as the ability to hire and fire certain staff, or to reject contracts made by the board. The superintendent also claims the board shut her out of meetings that she’s legally obligated to attend.

In her complaint, Foose says these actions have caused “chaos and uncertainty” in district operations, reports the Baltimore Sun. Foose is hardly the first superintendent to spar publicly with elected members of her school board. She isn’t even the first superintendent to take her board to court. Far from it.

Crippling disagreements between school board leaders and district superintendents happen every day, to one degree or another, in school districts across the country. There are many reasons for this. But one factor is almost always in play: poor communication. The worst part? It’s students who ultimately suffer.

A little tension can sometimes be a good thing. School boards exist largely to ensure superintendents work on behalf of the communities they’re entrusted to serve. But an all-out war threatens to grind your progress to a sudden and disastrous halt.

Here’s a few steps school district leaders should consider before and during their time at the helm to ensure strong and productive relationships with the members of their local school boards.

1. Know how your board communicates

One idea: take pains to meet your students and their families where they are. That means understanding the most effective ways to communicate with them, and when to send those communications.

Apply the same thinking to the different members of your school board.

Former school district superintendent Dr. Gerald Dawkins says one step every superintendent should take in their first days in office is to understand how different board members prefer to communicate. Where one board member might prefer email, another might only answer phone calls. It seems simple. But communicating according to different individual preferences and approaches is incredibly important.

As superintendent and author Howard Carlson writes:

Treating school board members “equally” is the first lesson that must be considered… 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.

2. Know your roles

Every school district has its own unique challenges and its own ways of dealing with them. Still, the school board-superintendent relationship has the same basic structure.

While school boards are largely tasked with putting the right people in place and setting goals in line with what the community wants and needs, superintendents work to carry out a strategic vision to achieve those goals. That includes implementing school board policies, managing people and crises, and overseeing day-to-day operations.

In successful school districts, the school board and the superintendent often share a symbiotic relationship.

According to the Alaska Association of School Boards (AASB), “The board and superintendent should work together to set priorities for the district…The board and superintendent should set aside time to define their proper roles within each of these areas.”

To avoid confusion or disputes, it’s critical that you and the members of the board determine what your specific responsibilities are before developing policies.

3. Get on the same page

So, you know what you’re supposed to do. Great. Now, it’s time to decide how you’re actually going to do it.

Whatever the hierarchy between you and your school board, remember that, in the end, both parties are accountable to the community. Your priorities should be their priorities.

As you develop new strategies and ideas, maintain a constant and open dialogue with community members. Try to understand what they want you to focus on. That doesn’t mean you always do what they say. Your expertise is important. But it does mean that you actively explain your decisions and invite feedback to generate buy-in for your vision.

What steps are you taking to ensure a strong superintendent-school board relationship in your district? Tell us in the comments.