I’ll never forget walking into a superintendent’s office a few years ago and finding her distraught. She’d just come out of an evaluation session with her board president and vice president, who’d informed her that her contract almost certainly wouldn’t be renewed when the full board voted in executive session the next week. What struck me was there weren’t really any serious complaints about the technical aspects of her chief executive performance, nor about educational performance in the district. “They told me that they just found it too difficult to work with me, that I wasn’t a good listener, that I argued too much and didn’t keep them well informed on developments in the district – those kinds of things,” is what I recall her telling me as we sat in her office. Indeed, her contract wasn’t renewed the following week. Welcome to the world of board-superintendent relations! As I’ve pointed out numerous times to participants in my governance workshops over the years, for every chief executive I’ve seen lose his job because of serious educational or managerial performance shortfalls, I’ve seen 10 sent packing because of relationship problems.
In my experience it’s no piece of cake building and maintaining a close, productive and enduring board-superintendent partnership, for a number of reasons. There’s the cast of characters involved in the boardroom drama: strong-willed, often opinionated, and inevitably blessed with robust egos. There are the multiple personal agendas that board members inevitably bring to their governing work. And when you add the kinds of complex, high-stakes, frequently negative issues that inexorably make their way to the boardroom in school districts of all shapes and sizes, it’s not hard to understand why the board-superintendent working relationship is always fragile and prone to deteriorate pretty quickly.
Brand-new superintendents are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to building a solid partnership with their new board. For one thing, very few have spent even one semester in graduate school delving into the finer points of board-superintendent relationship building, which is pretty ironic when you think about how critical the relationship is to a superintendent’s success, much less her longevity in the job. For another, climbing the district organizational ladder by capably handling a variety of operational issues typically doesn’t prepare an administrator to work with a board. When you reach the top spot in a district, you’ve truly entered a new world, professionally speaking, and you’re faced with having to master a whole new set of tricks of the governing trade.
So I’m pleased that two truly board-savvy superintendents – Jose Espinoza (El Paso, Texas) and Nick Polyak (Franklin Park, Illinois) – have recorded this superb podcast for our Board Savvy Superintendent Blog. Whether you’re a seasoned superintendent who wants to sharpen your relationship maintenance skills or a superintendent-aspirant who is looking for nuts and bolts relationship building tactics, you’ll find Jose and Nick’s podcast a rich resource.