Boards & Superintendents – Strategies for Creating a Strong Strategic Partnership

NSBA Webinar and Q&A Sponsored by BoardDocs

On November 8, 2017, NSBA hosted a webinar for school boards, administrators, and state associations on the topic of “Boards and Superintendents: Strategies for Creating a Strong Strategic Partnership,” sponsored by BoardDocs. The webinar, moderated by Dottie Schindlinger, VP/Governance Technology Evangelist for BoardDocs, featured panelists including:

The panel provided a number of specific suggestions for strengthening the strategic partnership between school boards and superintendents from these three unique perspectives. Our audience of highly engaged school leaders asked more questions than we had time to discuss during the webinar. By way of follow-up, we asked our panel to write responses to the questions audience members posed; those responses appear below.

For more information and to watch a replay of the webinar, click here.

Questions from the Audience:

Q1: What is the impact on the relationship when the board is split about its understanding of the role of the board and board members? What are some strategies to overcome the challenges of a split board, specifically with respect to the superintendent-board relationship?

Response: Beverly Slough

“When a board is split and there is disagreement and even infighting, focus is shifted from student achievement to internal struggles. Generally, this also results in "camps" being formed – usually with one aligned with the superintendent and one in opposition. When this occurs, internal work needs to be done among board and superintendent to form a cohesive team whose singular focus is children. This can be accomplished by specialized training (usually available from state school boards associations) designed to diminish conflict and capitalize on strengths. A facilitator can guide the conversation and help to bridge the gaps in understanding among all members of the leadership team. As the team building happens, focus is shifted from the conflict back to student success. The factions are healed, and the leadership team becomes cohesive and productive.”

Q2: Is there a tool that we can use to conduct the Superintendent’s Employee Appraisal?

Response: Andrea Messina

“Most boards use both a formative and summative instrument, and many use annual goals.”

Response: Dottie Schindlinger

“BoardDocs also provides the option to post, collect, and provide summaries of Superintendent Employee Appraisals for the board. That can make gathering the responses much easier and more secure.” Learn more about BoardDocs Pro

Q3: Is it a REQUIREMENT to have a succession plan or just good planning?

Response: Andrea Messina

“It is a requirement if the board has it in policy or votes to direct a school board to develop one. Otherwise, as I say with anything else, if it isn’t in policy, it is just a good idea.”

Q4: Dr. Wortham mentioned 3 questions we should ask regarding the mission statement – what were those questions again?

Response: Dr. Deborah Wortham

The mission statement should answer three questions:

1. What is it that you want to do?

2. How will you know that you were doing it?

3. What will you do to guarantee success?

Q5: What do you suggest a board should do when the superintendent stops being open and transparent with the board?

Response: Beverly Slough

“The superintendent must be confronted privately by the board chair if the breach is with the entire board or by the board member being shut out if it is an individual. If this is not successful, an outside facilitator can often help the team understand the importance of openness and trust among the team. If the issue is not addressed, trust will continue to deteriorate, often resulting in a change in superintendent.”

Response: Dr. Deborah Wortham

“The board sets policy and the superintendent implements policy. United, the board and superintendent serve as the district’s leadership team. If there is a disconnect in transparency, one would want to examine practices used by the board and superintendent.”

“What evidence does the board have that the superintendent is not transparent? For instance, the board should consult with the superintendent on all issues concerning the school district. All reports should come from the superintendent to the board. Other staff members should not submit reports or communicatedirectly to the board. This is one way the superintendent might be perceived as not being transparent. Boards and superintendents must exercise, the “One Voice” philosophy. That one voice, is the voice of the sole employee that the board hired.”

Q6: Is there a movement to have Superintendents come from other areas that are not the usual teacher to admin to super? Perhaps more of a Business Model?

Response: Andrea Messina

“There is more of this happening nationally than before, certainly. Some states have passed laws that allow for business professionals to become school site administrators (principals) without education experience, so that extends into district leadership. Most boards have the authority to determine what they are seeking in a superintendent, within the parameters of state laws that are more stringent in some states than others. Some boards believe that it is imperative that a candidate for superintendent have classroom or school site experience, others do not. Also, some communities are more supportive of alternative models than others.”

Q7: How do I motivate my board to attend board governance training? It has been over 18 years since my board has been trained, and the lack of training has taken a toll on our superintendent.

Response: Beverly Slough

“Perhaps you could team up with your superintendent to help the rest of the team understand how important governance training is to the success of your children. Maybe if you both appeal to the other members, they will agree to the training. Our Board participates in Master Board training anytime there is a turnover in membership – even if it is only one member. Every time a member is replaced, the current team ceases to exist and a new one is constituted. Working together to build cohesiveness among all members is essential to assure that your students are provided the leadership to reach their highest potential.”

Response: Andrea Messina

“Get it in policy! In Florida, some boards have it in their policy that it is an expectation of serving on the board. When FSBA does a superintendent search, we recommend that the new superintendent get it in his/her contract to illustrate to the board how important joint training is. During annual reorganization, it also helps to have public conversations about what professional development the board participated in during the previous year.”

Response: Dottie Schindlinger

“This is another area where BoardDocs can provide useful tools. You can load board education materials right into the Library, and you can add dates for training sessions on the calendar. You can also make sure the board has access to all the policies – including any policy regarding board education.”

Q8: I’m hearing that there is a teacher & superintendent shortage forthcoming. What are associations doing to address this?

Response: Andrea Messina

“State school board associations work directly with their state legislatures and state boards of education to create programs to recruit and retain teachers and other district leaders.”

Q9: Do you think the Board should be involved with the superintendent and her/his cabinet?

Response: Dr. Deborah Wortham

“No! I do not believe the board should be involved with the superintendent and his/her Cabinet. This is the time set aside for the superintendent to strategize in implementing the policies set by the board.”

Q10: Shouldn't you look for a candidate that would fit to resolve the issues you are having? If they are not skilled to address the issues why would you want them?

Response: Beverly Slough

“While the issues that a district is facing must be addressed, the bigger challenge is determining the direction a Board and district wants to pursue. Seek a leader who can help the district obtain its objectives and complete its mission. Working together with a singular focus, Board and Superintendent can overcome to the issues and build a successful culture that allows children to thrive and achieve to highest levels.”

Response: Andrea Messina

“You should absolutely look for a superintendent that would fit to resolve the issues you are having. Sometimes, however, once you have hired a superintendent to resolve issues you were having, new issues pop up and it doesn’t make sense to change again. Sometimes it makes sense to invest in current leadership so that they have additional skill sets or to bring on a consultant for a project without changing leadership.”

Q11: I find that a lot of information is kept from the Board because Superintendents have their own idea of what they need to tell the Board. How do you overcome the difference of belief of what needs to be presented?

Response: Beverly Slough

“Board members need to be open about the kind of information they need to inform their work and build a culture of success. As Board Members work together to support the Superintendent, trust will develop within the team, causing the Superintendent to be more open with the Board. That said, Board members need to be careful to stay within their sphere of work. Board members are charged with setting policy, not managing the district. If everyone stays in his/her lane, trust will follow.”

Response: Dr. Deborah Wortham

“On-going communication between the superintendent and members of the school board is of the utmost importance. Superintendents have an abundance of ways to communicate via text or e-mail, telephone conversations or face-to-face. Regularly, reports are provided to the board and information sessions during the public board meeting are conducted. Additionally, information is shared on a daily basis as necessary. If something happens in a school, principals in my district send me a text. I copy the text and send it to the board immediately! In this way, board members do not hear it from other means. What should be shared? Everything!”

Q12: There should be a definition of governance vs. management. The board is responsible for oversight, as well as policy. Fraud will hit the Board in the paper, not the Superintendent.

Response: Andrea Messina

“We spend an inordinate amount of time clarifying governance vs. management with Florida boards, and I know the other state associations do as well. I am certain superintendents would agree that understanding this distinction is the cornerstone to effective governance.”

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