Truly board-savvy superintendents make sure that their board evaluates their performance at least annually, employing a well-designed process that gets the heart of the superintendent’s leadership as chief executive of her district. Really board-savvy superintendents know that a simplistic approach won’t get the job done – in fact, might actually damage the board-superintendent working relationship. A few years ago I was interviewing school board members one-on-one in preparation for a daylong governance retreat I’d been retained to facilitate. In response to my question about the health of the board-superintendent partnership, at least five of the seven board members, if I recall correctly, identified as a really serious issue the superintendent’s inattention to district image building. The superintendent’s failure to build strong relationships with such critical stakeholders as the board of county commissioners and the local community college system was specifically mentioned. And a majority of board members also mentioned the superintendent’s failure to get the board meaningfully involved in district strategic planning. I recall one interviewee saying that the superintendent’s idea of involvement was having board members just read and respond to staff drafts of various sections of the updated strategic plan, “turning us into an audience” as one board member observed.
Before conducting these interviews, I’d reviewed a pound or so of documentation, including a description of the process the board had been using to evaluate superintendent performance. To call it a simplistic approach understates the case. Individual board members received a questionnaire at the end of the fiscal year asking them to evaluate the superintendent’s performance on a scale of 1 to 5 in various broad functional areas, such as financial planning and management, educational leadership, selection of executives, communication with faculty, etc. The questionnaires were collected and tabulated and were the basis for a brief meeting with the superintendent to discuss the compiled rankings. What struck me about this process, which gave the illusion of precision by having board members assign numerical rankings that could be averaged, was the total absence of concrete chief executive leadership outcomes. The issues that came up in my one-on-one interviews hadn’t surfaced in the most recent evaluation because the process wasn’t designed to surface them, and yet board members obviously felt they were really important.
The board’s retreat planning committee that I was working with decided that upgrading evaluation of superintendent performance should be one of the retreat’s major goals so we put together a breakout group whose work laid the foundation for a new evaluation process that has turned superintendent evaluation into a much more powerful tool for keeping the board-superintendent partnership healthy. In a nutshell, the breakout group, which included the superintendent, identified key superintendent “CEO-centric” outcomes for the coming fiscal year in four key leadership areas: board development and support (for example, the superintendent will make sure that the new board planning committee is up and running within six months); strategic institutional development (for example, the superintendent will put in place a capital campaign to fund a new high school); internal management/administrative capacity building (for example, the superintendent will spearhead a major renovation of the district’s financial reporting process); and external stakeholder relations (for example, the superintendent will take the lead in working with the chamber of commerce to form a district corporate advisory group).
Now the evaluation process consists of two tiers that make evaluation a far more meaningful tool: overall district educational performance against measurable targets (test scores; attendance; drop-out rates; etc.); the superintendent’s performance in achieving the negotiated “CEO-centric” outcomes.