A Fragile Partnership in the Best of Times
Over the years I’ve come across enough badly frayed board-superintendent partnerships to wonder if a really rock-solid working relationship that can stand the test of challenging times is the exception that proves the rule that board-superintendent partnerships are extremely fragile – and prone to unravel alarmingly quickly. That’s not very surprising when you think about it. In the first place, the cast of characters comprising your district’s Strategic Governing Team makes for a pretty volatile mix of people who are notoriously resistant to being melded into a cohesive governing team: high-achieving, ambitious, egotistical, strong-willed, and more often than not classic “Type A” personalities. When you add to this volatile mix the pressures and stresses and strains at the top of any large, complex enterprise like a school district that, in these rapidly changing times, is constantly bombarded with complex, high-stakes issues, it’s nothing short of miraculous that so many board-superintendent relationships endure as long as they do.
One thing for sure: taking the board-superintendent working relationship for granted would be a perilous course of action, at least for superintendents. Conscious, systematic management and maintenance of the relationship are required to keep it healthy.
COMMON BARRIERS TO HIGH-IMPACT GOVERNING
I’ve learned that it makes the best of sense to go into any game with your eyes wide open, understanding that no matter how talented, motivated and dedicated you and your teammates are, you need to anticipate obstacles to winning and pay close attention to how you can overcome them. This is certainly true of the governing game, which involves not only a potentially volatile group of participants, but also tremendously complex and high-stakes work. So let’s look briefly at some of the more serious barriers to high-impact governing that I’ve observed over the years and that the practical guidance in the following pages is aimed at helping you overcome, starting with some in-built problems with your school board organization itself.
In my writing and speaking over the years, I’ve made the point that governing is a function, like chief executive-ship, that transcends particular kinds of nonprofit and public organizations, and that the boards that carry out the governing function in diverse sectors such as education, social services, health care, and public transportation are much more alike than different. That said, it’s important to keep in mind as we traverse the k-12 governance terrain that there are three unique structural and cultural features that distinguish school boards from many other nonprofit and public governing boards and that, in my opinion, work against effective governance:
First, the great majority of school boards are quite small when compared to other nonprofit and public boards – between 5 and 9 members. Although I’ve heard consultants and teachers tout the benefits of small boards: principally that they work more efficiently as governing mechanisms – having an easier time reaching consensus and making final decisions – and that their deliberations are easier to manage and support. These minor efficiency benefits are, in my experience, outweighed by significant costs.
For one thing, smaller, less diverse boards bring less experience, knowledge, expertise, and perspectives to the process of making complex governing judgments and decisions. For another, smaller school boards reduce ties to the wider community, making public and stakeholder relations an even more challenging function. And, of special interest to superintendents, a small board is much more vulnerable to being high-jacked by a single-issue, ax grinding contingent that is all-too-often pledged to ousting the chief executive. I’ve seen this happen more than once in recent years, primarily as a result of the culture wars that we continue to wage. I saw this first-hand a couple of years ago, when four newly elected members of a seven-member school board were passionately united on a particular issue: removing “inappropriate” books from the two middle school libraries. Being closely tied to the former, more broad-minded majority, the superintendent found herself in a perilous situation that she was barely able to survive.
Second, being for the most part elected boards that do not nominate candidates for vacant positions, school boards tend to have little or no influence on board composition, which removes one of the important levers for board capacity building in the wider nonprofit world. By contrast, many nonprofits I work with whose boards are self-appointing pay close attention to filling their own vacancies, typically by reaching agreement on the most desirable board member attributes and qualifications (such as having prior successful board experience and having demonstrated open-mindedness) and using this profile to recruit new members. And many of my association clients whose boards are elected by their membership employ a nominating committee to identify qualified candidates to fill vacancies. I know of one school board that supports an independent blue ribbon citizen panel responsible for screening school board candidates and promoting their election, but I’m sure this is the rare exception that proves the rule.
The former two characteristics are obviously structural and beyond the direct control of the school board. They’re facts of life in the K-12 governance world that you’ve got to cope with since you can’t really change them. The third, however, being cultural, is amenable to change: the adversarial, watch-the-critters-so-they-don’t-steal-the-store tradition. In my twenty-five years of work with nonprofit and public boards of all shapes and sizes, I’ve never encountered a stronger we-they tradition than in public education governance. The absence of trust and the in-built tension between the school board, on the one hand, and the superintendent and her top administrators, on the other, is often palpable, making good governance far more difficult to achieve. That’s the bad news. The better news is that cultural change is always possible when the parties are committed to accomplishing it. Here are some other barriers that might hinder your district in developing a high-impact Strategic Governing Team:
• Your superintendent isn’t sufficiently board-savvy, not bringing the right attitude to his work with the school board, not being knowledgeable enough about the work of nonprofit and public governing, and not recognizing the need to handle the human dimension of the board-superintendent governing partnership.
• Your school board is under-developed as a governing organization, lacking a well-defined governing role or mission, a systematic process for developing board member governing knowledge and expertise, and a contemporary, well-designed committee structure.
• Your school board is under-managed as a governing body, meaning that the board does not set clear governing performance targets, monitor its own governing performance, or systematically correct governing deficiencies.
• The processes for involving board members in a meaningful fashion in key governing areas such as strategic and operational planning and performance monitoring are under-designed, leaving board members dissatisfied and frustrated by their lack of engagement that makes a difference.
• The board-superintendent working relationship is taken for granted and allowed to erode, rather than being meticulously and systematically managed to keep it healthy.
This blog post is excerpted from my newest book, Governing at the Top (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).