By all accounts, MaryEllen Elia was doing an outstanding job at the helm of the Hillsborough County Public Schools: significantly improving educational and administrative performance, building a collaborative working relationship with faculty, and launching a far-reaching teaching improvement initiative with a $100 million grant from the Gates Foundation. Her reward? With no warning, being fired without cause by the Board of Education. Actually, MaryEllen, one of our nation’s most illustrious educational leaders, was eventually rewarded – by being named the New York State Commissioner of Education and President of the University of the State of New York (USNY). But, as I counseled participants in the workshop I presented for AASA’s Aspiring Superintendents Academy a couple of weeks ago, don’t count on bouncing back so nicely if you fall victim to one of those “insidious foes” of a solid board-superintendent partnership that can do you in professionally if you’re not vigilant.
By “insidious foe,” I mean an erroneous assumption about the nature of the governing function that sounds plausible and might even be recommended by a self-styled governance guru, but that can seriously damage the board-superintendent partnership. In MaryEllen’s case, the insidious foe that caught her off guard was the erroneous assumption that excellent, even stellar, superintendent – and district – performance is enough to keep the board-superintendent working relationship healthy. Another example of an insidious foe that can disrupt a superintendent’s career is the erroneous assumption that training is a powerful board capacity building tool. In reality, experience has taught that although training can educate board members (the ones who are patient enough to be lectured to, that is) about one facet or another of the governing function, real progress in terms of board performance requires putting a well-designed committee structure and processes for engaging board members in place. Superintendents forget at their peril that under-performing boards tend to be made up of unsatisfied, frustrated members who don’t make for reliable partners.
“Caveat Emptor” – consumer beware – is a watchword for all really board-savvy superintendents. Always question the advice you’re offered when you’re dealing with governance questions, even when it sounds plausible or is authoritatively proffered. But, as we discussed in the Aspiring Superintendents Academy workshop, assessing the value of governance advice requires that you make a serious, sustained effort to understand the governance function inside-out. That’s no easy task, when you consider that the field of public/nonprofit governance is highly complex, rapidly changing, and ill-defined – without universally accepted standards and best practices. And superintendent-aspirants are highly unlikely to learn much about it while making their way up the district administrative ladder.
But you’ve got to give it the old college try if you want to succeed – and survive – for very long as chief executive of your district.