Efforts to improve school systems generally focus on student achievement, academic standards, teacher quality, efficient business operations, curriculum development, and other important topics. Often overlooked is the board and superintendent relationship and how the two can work as a team to foster excellence in the system.
Why is a team-like relationship so critical to system improvement? It is difficult to make progress without teamwork.
District-wide leadership is the job of the school board and superintendent, and each must play a key role if the school system is to flourish. In turn, their unified leadership vision needs to be communicated to other system administrators and school-level leaders. Because of the various levels of leadership and interdependency within a school system, there is no substitute for the school board, the superintendent and other leaders working as a team on the hard work of instructional improvement.
The essential ingredients of teamwork are – trust, respect, shared values and knowledge, and each team member understanding his or her role. These elements permeate our culture from the workplace to the playing fields and they need to be evident in a progressive school system.
If the board and superintendent are to function as a team, they need to go beyond identifying the elements of teamwork. They need to know how to put those elements into practice. Basic to functioning as a team is a plan for roles and procedures. Literature on the subject highlights the importance of specified roles and procedures along with corresponding policies to support them. The following activities are critical in developing a plan for roles and procedures:
- Outline board and superintendent roles and how they complement one another. Broadly defined, the board establishes policies and the superintendent implements them and is responsible for the operation of the school district. Together they work to engage the community in determining the future direction of district schools and have the joint task of establishing district-wide goals and objectives.
- Emphasize that the board functions as a unit, not as a collection of individuals with individual agendas. The main objective of both school board and superintendent is to educate the district's students. To achieve this objective, they should view themselves as members of a team–not as adversaries on opposing teams.
- Determine whether there will be board committees or whether the board will function as a committee of the whole. If board committees are used, establish a policy that the role of the committee is to study a specific issue and make recommendations to the entire board within a specific time period. The entire board must receive the recommendation, and take any required action.
- Establish how the board meeting agenda will be developed: What roles do the superintendent, board president, and board members play? Will the board use a consent agenda? (That is, will issues on which there is a consensus be placed on the agenda for a public vote?)
- Specify how decisions will be made. Consensus-driven decision-making can help build relationships and break down barriers to improving student achievement.
- Recognize that the superintendent is the chief executive officer of the school district. The role of the chief executive officer includes providing the board with information and making recommendations on policy, budget, and program. As CEO, the superintendent is also responsible for day-to-day administration of policies, resources, personnel, and the educational program.
- Adopt and adhere to the state-mandated code of ethics and conflict of interest provisions that addresses how the board and superintendent are to behave while conducting the business of the school district. The State Board models and other local board governance documents can be viewed at this link.
- Institute a policy and procedures to address parent/citizen complaints and inquiries. This does much to maintain the unity of the board–especially unity of voice, or speaking as a board–and gives the superintendent a mechanism to address complaints and inquiries. It keeps a board member or the superintendent from getting caught up in an issue particular to one parent or community group and inadvertently undermining the work of the board and superintendent team. A policy and procedure also reinforces a culture of "no surprises" and facilitates communication.
Districts use a variety of strategies to bring their plans to life and to build trust and respect:
- Communicate to build trust, respect, understanding, and teamwork. Newsletters, e-mails, access to individuals, and mailing packets are used regularly to ensure all players have the information they need to fulfill their roles. Communication strategies should emphasize no surprises–information critical to decision-making is shared by boards and superintendents, and access to information is not used as a political tool. "No surprises" also means board members speak as a board, and both the board and superintendent speak in support of the vision and goals of the district.
- Board and superintendent work sessions before board meetings help foster teamwork, encourage communication, and allow participants to engage in deliberations and consensus-building. The preliminary work done at these sessions can make board meetings more productive. Use a work-session agenda to keep the group on target. The deliberation encouraged by work sessions often brings forth a variety of ideas. To avoid distraction, yet capture ideas not directly related to the agenda, keep a log of ideas for future sessions.
- Board and superintendent work-related retreats offer opportunities for people to get to know each other and better understand the diversity of skills, personalities, and interests among board members. Such retreats provide a more relaxed environment in which to review district goals, objectives, policies, and procedures.
- Opportunities for positive interaction among the board, superintendent, and staff can also foster team-building. These opportunities often take the form of celebrations of achievement, such as progress made on strategic goals and objectives. Opportunities also flourish where there are difficulties that are addressed as a team. Recognition of problems and the work being undertaken to address difficulties can often help build a sense of pride and mutual effort.
- Develop a planned orientation program for new board members. New board members should meet with the board officers and the superintendent to receive an introduction to such issues as school finance, personnel procedures, individual roles and responsibilities, the importance of policies, and current school system goals and objectives. Assign mentors to new board members to build and maintain a culture based on teamwork and to support roles and procedural plans. Mentors can also provide new members with a sense of continuity and enhance understanding of issues that are important to improving student achievement. As one superintendent explained, "The assistance of former board presidents in providing facts and historical perspective is invaluable."
- Make sure board members have access to state-level training as well. GSBA's New Board Member Orientation is offered twice each year prior to the association's conferences. It provides new board members legally required training credits. GSBA also offers numerous opportunities for veteran board members to hone their skills.
- Professional development can greatly strengthen the board and superintendent team. It can help turn around a conflict situation or keep a well-functioning team on track. Focus on professional development that emphasizes joint board and superintendent training and teamwork. Often board development programs offer teamwork models. Since it is unlikely any one model can meet every district's needs, do not hesitate to borrow from a variety of models to develop structures that best suit the needs of the system. Your state school boards association can offer or suggest quality board development opportunities.
- Seek out other board and superintendent teams at conferences and through professional organizations, and share wisdom and best practices.
Engage in board and superintendent evaluation. Evaluations that examine how the board and superintendent work together and fulfill their assigned roles are the most insightful. Download chart as a PDF.