Last week’s post at this blog features my video interview with Dave Schuler, Lead Teacher of AASA’s Aspiring Superintendents Academy and former AASA Chair, who discusses the mission, goals, and accomplishments of the Academy. Dave and I are in complete agreement that K-12 administrators aspiring to take the helm of a school district are often woefully ill-prepared to build the kind of partnership with their new board that is critical to their success and to their longevity at the top. We discussed two major reasons in our interview: the absence of detailed, practical, experience-based courses on governance generally – and board-superintendent relationship building particularly – in graduate schools of education; and the unlikelihood that an administrator will become truly “board-savvy” – mastering the tricks of the governance trade – while climbing the district administrative ladder. One of the most important tricks of the governance trade that aspiring superintendents are unlikely to learn climbing the administrative ladder is the use of well-designed board standing committees to preserve the superintendent’s line of credit, as the following true story indicates. I deal with this benefit of board committees, among others, in Chapter 8 of my new book, Building a High-Impact Board-Superintendent Partnership (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).
A school board’s Planning & Development Committee held four intensive work sessions over the course of six months in coming up with a list of schools to be closed because of falling enrollment, working closely with the superintendent and her top lieutenants. The committee chair had also partnered with the superintendent in addressing a number of community forums about the reasons why the closings were necessary and how the list of schools was being developed. The Planning & Development Committee officially hosted the special board work session that reviewed the committee’s closing recommendations, and the Planning & Development Committee chair ultimately introduced the resolution pertaining to the closings, which was passed unanimously at a regular board business meeting.
This true story illustrates one of the powerful benefits of well-designed board standing committees: providing superintendents with what you might call “spear carriers” – committee chairs and members who play a leading role in addressing thorny and often controversial issues like school closings and who formally recommend action at board business meetings. In practice, this means that the superintendent doesn’t have to expend nearly as much of her precious – and finite – line of credit in securing board action.
This very practical political benefit is one of the reasons why every really board-savvy superintendent I’ve worked with over the years has been an ardent advocate for well-designed board standing committees and other vehicles for engaging volunteers and transforming them into spear carriers. Of course, there are other compelling reasons for board committees – such as more thorough preparation for board meetings – but you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of having strong champions who can help preserve your line of credit with the board.
I should point out that if a school board is too small (say, five members) – or the board’s trust level too low – to make actual, standalone standing committees practical, there’s always the virtual committee alternative, which many of my clients have chosen: the whole board meeting monthly in a committee-of-the-whole work session divided into standing committee segments, each one chaired by a different board member appointed by the board chair/president. Experience has taught me that the chairs of these virtual committees can be very effective spear carriers for the superintendent.