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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
October 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 2

Rethinking the School Board's Role

In districts that are committed to the ideals of restructuring, superintendents and trustees must make significant changes in how they do business with one another.

When I was elected to an elementary district school board nine years ago, the superintendent called to both congratulate and invite me to visit. From that first contact, I learned how we did business as a district.
I was advised that my duties involved setting “policies” and that if I needed any information, I should call upon my superintendent for help. To enhance the sense of unity with the superintendent, I was discouraged from communicating with other staff, as teachers were often intimidated by board members. I was more than welcome to ask the superintendent about anything, and I certainly could be invited (through him) to visit classrooms. While I asked several times about being invited to a staff meeting, however, I never was.
Over the first few years, it all seemed so smooth that I was lulled into doing no more than what was expected of me and feeling okay about it. Mostly all that was needed was my presence: once a month at board meetings and occasionally for a photo opportunity, like passing out diplomas. The superintendent kept us informed about things he deemed important for us to know and was available to deal with issues any trustee might have.
Reflecting now, I don't fault him for assuming we wanted a passive role. It was, and largely still is, the way superintendents believe trustees want things to be. And, like most people who aren't aware of the alternatives or encouraged to take initiative, trustees, by and large, buy into the concept.

Why the Status Quo Must Go

The traditional trustee-superintendent relationship is based on (1) a lack of independent knowledge, or direct access to knowledge, on the part of trustees; and (2) an expectation—by both parties—that the paid employee (the superintendent) should be the expert and do the work. By and large, the culture of school districts and superintendent organizations has fostered the continuation of this relationship.
This situation cannot continue. If we are to make lasting change in how we do business as educators, we can't leave trustees out of the picture. Nor can we rely on the wisdom of individual superintendents who are subject to being fired every few years. No, if we want to restructure and stay that way, we must redefine the relationship between board members and the superintendent.
Trustees must be prepared and expected to perform as caring, competent, consensus-based leaders. Superintendents, too, must share their power and operate from consensus, built on good information and thoughtful communication, not control. If not, the whims of politics, or individual superintendents, will remain powerful enough to destroy years of painstaking reform work at the school and classroom levels. If staff, especially teachers, are to exercise the incredible effort required to transform schools into places where students are expected to perform to high standards, then we must guarantee that those efforts are not in vain.

Changes for the Superintendent

One of the first things needed is an opening of the superintendent's doors in both directions. Rather than being the go-between, holder-of-all-vital information, carrying communications from board to staff and vice versa (interpreting the messages as he or she sees and hears them, in the process), the superintendent must become the facilitator of direct interaction between these units, bringing them together rather than holding them apart.
Superintendents may find this threatening, realizing that if they step out of the “interception” role, they lose the ability to control and interpret the communications—suffering a loss of power and possibly some job security as well. They may also view this as practically impossible, particularly if the district is large. But it can be done—provided the trustees are willing to shoulder the added learning and responsibilities necessary.
Superintendents would be right, of course, in thinking this change of role risky: it is. But control is inimical to the kinds of structural changes mandated by restructuring. What is needed is not control but clear communication and commitment to the arduous work of group process. And, while it does require greater risk-taking, the superintendent's significance is in no way lessened; in fact, a higher level of leadership ability is demanded. His or her role now becomes not interpreting the flow of information but participating in and guiding (by providing information and modeling coaching techniques) the interpretations made by others. The superintendent must help the others (in this case, trustees, but it works with employees, too) make decisions in such a way that the team makes the right ones. And, of course, the superintendent is still the expert, making sure that the information upon which the team's decisions will be made is adequate and accurate.
Equally important, the superintendent must ensure that his or her teammates—the trustees—are ready: it is disastrous to empower unqualified people with critical decision-making power. This has happened incalculable times and is one of the major reasons many professionals are uneasy about community/parent governance structures.
This revised role for the superintendent is precisely what we (educators, politicians, parents, and business people who believe our schools are in trouble) are now asking teachers to do with children: coach, nurture, and advise each person and group to find its way when the teacher (superintendent) is not there. This idea is, to various degrees, commonly accepted on the site administrative level; that is, giving power to principals and sites and letting go from the central office.
The phenomenon is recognized in corporate America as well: TQM recognizes that shared power/accountability enhances performance. But even in business board rooms, CEOs and directors are just beginning to understand that it also applies to them. Indeed, CEOs are now feeling the exertion of the latent power of directors in many major corporations. Directors, like trustees, cannot take a passive role and expect the organization to continue to be successful.
If superintendents do not carve out this new role for themselves, inevitably they will not let go of enough power to allow the growth of responsibility and development of leadership abilities needed to make shared decision making function smoothly. Superintendents must become transformational leaders by transforming, first, what they themselves do and how they do it.

New Roles for Board Members

Assuming such a role is taken on by the superintendent, what, then, becomes the role of the school board?
Traditionally, few boards ever have meetings without the superintendent physically present; they are much like children relying on a parent—or students relying on a teacher. Just as we see with kids in a classroom, when excellence is not demanded, when thoughtfulness is not valued, and when self-directed meaningful work is not required, then apathy and mediocrity result. Is it any wonder trustees have abdicated their responsibilities over the years? Or that they spend board meetings debating the merits of selling candy bars at fund raisers? They've come to believe that they can't do much, don't know much, and shouldn't do much—and act accordingly.
While superintendents have always told trustees that their job is making policy, the kinds of policies boards have most often made are those needed for legally required actions mandated by state and federal law or laundry-list local concerns like employee leave policies. The visionary stuff, the idea and belief level of policymaking, has pretty much been left to the professionals.
But board policymakers should concern themselves, after thoughtful public exposure and debate, with important policies like what the community wants its children to be able to do, how to set appropriate goals and standards, how to deal with federal or state mandates without sacrificing community values and objectives, and how (or even whether) to make parents real educational partners. Policy also involves airing critical educational issues: Must schools teach democratic values? How do we deal with multiculturalism? How do we address school choice? These are the kinds of policies that rarely get debated in a public boardroom unless some particular local topic (like offering a sex education course, usually) brings people out. To do this sort of thinking in public, trustees must have a level of knowledge and articulation and listening skills that are rarely evident today. But they can be attained.

Some Strategies for Change

Here are some suggestions for electing capable people to a school board and for working with current trustees, whatever their backgrounds.

Recruiting Board Members

  • Some months prior to a scheduled board election, start holding “information nights” to give possible candidates a sense of what board participation is all about and an opportunity to get acquainted with the superintendent, principals, and incumbent board members.
  • Go to your community's civic organizations and businesses, and tell employers what is needed for board leadership. Persuade them to offer released time from work to encourage candidates to make the commitment. Talk the businesses into underwriting some of the training costs. Not only will they improve their image and goodwill, but they'll also develop good company managers and leaders on the job.
  • Identify active parents or community business leaders and recruit them to attend the informational meetings. If you have good school site councils in place, recruit their strongest members. Include educators who work in other districts. Tell these people you want them to be leaders, not just supporters. Make parents' work as important as staff work. It's time to recognize parents as equal partners in their children's education and not just mouth the words to show community input.
  • Ask teachers to use class time to discuss what school board members do, or should do, and what kind of people they would like to see govern their schools. Encourage them to assign students to talk about these issues with their parents as homework.
  • If a working board is in place, current members can offer potential candidates opportunities to “shadow” them at committee meetings or other functions.
  • Once candidates have filed, share important district policies with them, invite them to staff meetings, provide literature about current issues in education, answer their questions, and help them prepare for public forums or debates.
  • Be honest about the time commitments it takes to do a good job.

Moving Current Trustees into Leadership Roles

  • Provide trustees with trust. Schedule seminars and retreats to explore anticipated areas of difficulties in working as a team with a superintendent-coach rather than superintendent-director.
  • Allow the superintendent to take a backseat occasionally and ask board members, on a rotation basis, to prepare for meetings (with the superintendent's assistant as a staff guide). Doing this will help them understand how important placement of items is on an agenda, how much goes into getting the right information, how staff members contribute, and so forth.
  • Educate trustees through readings and seminars. Send trustees to conferences designed for professional educators—not just traditional state or national board meetings, which still leave them in the backseat. Also design your own seminars with district staff, and invite teachers and other parents as co-participants.
  • Require accountability and production. Ask trustees to do what they ask of the superintendent, students, and teachers. Help them define a learning task and ways to assess it, and build portfolios to share with future candidates.
  • Develop a self-evaluation and superintendent-evaluation of the board annual review process. Trustees can set individual and board goals each fiscal year just as administrators and teachers do; hold them to them.
  • Help trustees to build relationships with other staff members in addition to the superintendent. Encourage them to attend (as observers) site council and school committee meetings; have them rotate activities and committees periodically to get a feel for different school cultures, needs, and personnel. Suggest that they shadow principals or teachers making peer-coaching classroom visits (but not to evaluate those teachers for employment purposes).Once started, this sort of strategy building can go on indefinitely. But each district must start with its own needs and its own members. Just as teachers and parents need to first look at each child and implement strategies that will work for that unique individual, superintendents and trustees need to discover together what needs to be done to make each trustee a more effective leader. Trustees, like students, have different learning styles, disabilities, preferences, and fears!
  • Finally, especially in districts with high unemployment or low-income parents, find ways to compensate trustees for their efforts through both official recognition from staff and students and monetary compensation and/or group health benefits, where appropriate. Let them know that their contributions make a difference.

A Delicate Balance

Getting away from the traditional roles of superintendent and school board will not be quick or painless. Even with a superintendent brave enough to try, and a school board willing to make the effort, sorting out roles in the gray areas of decision making is difficult. A balance must be achieved that does not hamper the day-to-day efficiency of the district or weaken the superintendent's effectiveness.
Like other elements of intra-district restructuring, empowering trustees with real decision making and simultaneously making them accountable will require preparation and time. Not the least of the issues is that trustees are part-time volunteers. That's why the suggestions made earlier about getting support and released time from businesses and service organizations are so important. Parent-trustees should also be encouraged to see how applicable the skills and knowledge acquired for board participation are in their own family, facilitating communication and conflict resolution.
I also do not want to minimize the difficulty of this process for even those superintendents personally committed to restructuring. Busy as they already are, even if they have the desire, where will they find the time or the resources for trustee education. And what if some board members are only there for personal agendas? What if some are downright bigots or so wedded to archaic educational beliefs that the whole idea of consensus decision making is too much? What if they like collecting their medical benefits, expense checks, or community prestige and have no desire whatsoever to work at the job?
All of these “what if's” present challenges for superintendents. And, indeed, they may be insurmountable at any given moment. But there is always time and an election in the future. While superintendents cannot favor candidates, they can do a lot to attract the kind of people who will be good trustees. They can also, simply by changing how they relate to current trustees, get them to do a lot more.
Educators are always complaining that enough parents don't participate in their children's education or support their schools adequately, even though research proves parent involvement enhances student success. Business and educational leaders agree that being part of the decision-making process is essential for “buy in” and successful implementation of an idea.
Isn't it time, therefore, that trustees were invited into a real partnership with superintendents, if the desired result is parental participation, student success, and staff empowerment and accountability? Isn't it obvious that relationships based on trust and shared information last longer than those founded in tradition or on control of information?
We, trustees and superintendents, must stop mouthing the word “partnership” and start taking steps to implement it instead. Forget the employment contract. Let's write a partnership agreement. If we don't, a lot of people—teachers especially—will be wasting a lot of time. And a lot of students will find restructuring to be nothing more than another swing of the education pendulum.
We can do better than that. Our kids deserve it. It's time to try out some new roles and endure the discomfort of change.

Jean Zlotkin has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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