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In the Hot Seat

When controversial filmmaker Michael Moore made his first foray into the hotbed of politics in 1972, the then 18-year-old ran for a seat on the school board in Flint, Michigan. His platform was simple: Fire the high school principal and vice principal.

At least these Flint administrators were clear on Moore’s agenda from the outset. That’s not usually the case. In fact, these days, even a positive relationship between boards and school leaders can tank faster than you can spell A-Y-P.

“We as a nation are so much less patient,” says Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association (NSBA). It’s not uncommon, she says, to see the school leadership team taking flak for not accomplishing goals that would reasonably take years to achieve, and all that data floating around to measure adequate yearly progress “can be incendiary.”

Maybe you’re thinking: It couldn’t happen here. My board and I are like this. But Arthur Griffin, vice president of national urban markets for McGraw-Hill Education and former chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC) school board, points out that research indicates that school board relations are one of the leading reasons for the crisis in superintendency. Even a happy romance between administrators and board can turn sour when expectations are ill-defined and communications go awry. Then things can get ugly. Showdown IN the southThis Southern superintendent is in a position many of her peers would envy—her school board can’t fire her. She’s elected rather than appointed, so the board is stuck with her whether they like it or not.

That’s great if everybody sees eye-to-eye, but it can be a nightmare when there’s a disagreement. In fact, the situation has been characterized as a relationship that has devolved into a kind of “bad marriage that you can’t leave,” says one school board member, who has served for many years in different capacities. According to him, “Rotten superintendents come and go, but the public disapproval of this superintendent is so strong that we’re having a referendum to change the system,” from an elected superintendent to an appointed one.

The admin is a former state official and has also been a school board member. She says she not only understood the district’s issues but had also developed a collaborative style that would help make things run smoothly as the school adds thousands of new students a year.She also says it took her a year to figure out that there was a fundamental philosophical difference between herself and the board. “My goal,” she says, “was to meet the needs of growth in the district: to get every child a seat. Their goal was equity: to bring all the old schools up to par.” While the superintendent was out developing partnerships with foundations to build more schools, strategizing about ways to get land for new school sites, and working with developers on student impact fees, the board was focused on fixing things up for the kids already in the system.

The board member counters that the superintendent never brought any actual grant money to the table—and furthermore, he argues that she commissioned an expensive school study without ever mentioning to the board that she wanted to change school configurations. “That’s a good way to get on a bad footing,” the board member says.

Whatever the cause, she says she was startled to discover the disparity in their visions, because she claims she had made a point of sitting down and talking with every board member right at the beginning.

The superintendent says another fundamental problem for her was that she did not have a vote on issues, and so had no real role in the process. She also felt undermined in her management decisions. She had the statutory right to hire people, but when she would bring in someone new, she felt that the board would suddenly change the job description and fire her people for being “unqualified.”

Again, the board member counters that her people really were unqualified. He claims that the admin hired a woman who lacked a college degree to be a deputy.

Ultimately, mediators came in to broker a truce. They agreed to a series of compromises, slowed down the agenda process so that the superintendent had a chance to make a closing statement on issues, and began working on establishing common goals. She removed herself from the new-construction process and began concentrating on curriculum.
The superintendent says her concept for an intensified math program dramatically increased state test scores. “That has added to my credibility,” she says. “But if I had been appointed, they would have fired me within the first two months.”

On that, at least, both parties seem to agree. “The whole board supported her in the beginning,” says the board member, “and the entire board would fire her now.”

The lesson: Get input from all stakeholders and make sure you understand the board’s agenda and its motivations behind that agenda. “Superintendents and school boards should always consummate their relationship with a contract that focuses on student achievement and any other strategic community goals,” McGraw-Hill’s Griffin says. “This contract should be immediately followed with a broad strategic plan that involves the community’s stakeholders.”

Bryant of the NSBA says that boards are often faced with painful choices over how to spend limited funds. That’s why it’s so critical to get the input of all stakeholders about what the community values. The NSBA offers a kit called “What Counts,” which can help your community figure this out. Next, the superintendent and school board must put away their own pet causes and beliefs and use the goals as a blueprint for how to develop capital and where to spend it.

About the Author

Pamela Wheaton Shorr is editor of The Heller Reports' Educational Sales and Marketing Insider, and is a frequent contributor to Scholastic Administr@tor.

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