The following article is excerpted from Chapter One of Doug Eadie’s forthcoming book, Building a High-Impact Board-Superintendent Partnership: 13 Critical Questions You Need to Answer (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).
“Raise your hand if you’ve had a really comprehensive, nuts and bolts course in graduate school on the work of governing, the roles of the school board and superintendent in the governing process, and ways to build a maintain a really solid board-superintendent partnership?” I open every one of my governing workshops for board members, chief executives, and senior administrators – most recently at the AASA and NSBA 2018 annual meetings – by asking this question. Never more than two or three hands go up, typically none. Welcome to the governing frontier! Despite the fact that governing boards have been a fact of life since the beginning of our republic – earlier in the case of the New England colonies – at this point in our country’s history you would not say that public/nonprofit governance generally, and K-12 governance specifically, is a full-fledged field with the universal agreement on core principles and best practices that characterizes a mature field.
Instead, K-12 governance is a developing field – actually more a leadership function – that is in a state of constant flux and is marked by often-heated debate about the principles that should guide the governing process and the practices that should be followed in making governing decisions and judgments. This lack of cohesion means, of course, that governing can be dangerous terrain, not so much for school boards, but for the superintendents working for and with them. Over my quarter-century of work with hundreds of board members and chief executives such as superintendents, I’ve come across a number of what I call “insidious foes” of governing board performance and of the board-superintendent partnership. These are erroneous assumptions about aspects of the governing process that can significantly limit a board’s governing effectiveness and erode the board-superintendent partnership. What makes them insidious is that they can sound plausible and are even frequently promoted by self-styled governing gurus.
Let “Caveat Emptor” be Your Watchword
A common example of an insidious foe that you’re well-advised to avoid is the wrong-headed notion that a fire wall should separate the so-called “policy making” work of the board from the completely different work that chief executives such as superintendents and their executive team members do. The twain should not be allowed to meet, fire wall proponents say, and a major responsibility of the chief executive is to preserve the wall as the best way to fend off micro-managing board members who are all-too-often tempted to meddle in executive and administrative details. Of course, as many if not most of my readers well know, the twain always meet since the process of making governing decisions and judgments requires the in-depth, creative collaboration of board members, superintendents, and their senior administrators spending lots of time at the same table.
Over the years, I’ve seen more than one chief executive, including a number of superintendents, come to grief, professionally speaking, by paying more attention to fending off board micro-management than to fostering the kind of intensive board-executive collaboration that is at the heart of effective governing. Really board-savvy superintendents know that the absence of creative board-superintendent collaboration inevitably leads to frustrated, dissatisfied board members who tend to take their frustration out on the superintendent. I’ll never forget a few years ago being contacted by a board chair and superintendent who wanted to discuss a serious problem they were facing. “We’re in a state of shock and can’t figure out what’s going on.” These were the first words I recall coming out of the board president’s mouth in the conference call she and her superintendent had scheduled with me.
They went on to explain that around a year ago the school board, superintendent, and his district administrative cabinet had completed a comprehensive governance policy review and update and had compiled the updated policies in a board manual that had been unanimously adopted by the board. They explained that for the first time they’d assembled what they called the “governing rules of the game” in one, well-organized policy book. They told me that they’d spent hours distinguishing between the board’s and superintendent’s primary responsibilities – “most importantly,” they said, spelling out the superintendent’s “executive limitations.” By the way, it turned out that they’d invested a hefty amount in the project, not only in consulting fees but also the cost of over a hundred hours of board and staff time spent deliberating in work sessions and drafting new and updated governing policies.
Having listened for fifteen minutes or so, I asked why they’d called me. Well, it turns out that in the year since putting their governing rules of the game in place, the board-superintendent-executive staff working relationship had gone steadily downhill. There was lots of carping at monthly board business meetings, the last budget preparation process had been excruciatingly painful – with lots of nitpicking in what seemed like interminable budget review sessions – and the superintendent said she was wondering if her job was in jeopardy. I recall the anguish in her voice when she asked how they’d gotten to this point after diligently doing so much good work. My on-the-spot diagnosis – based on encounters with many similar situations over the years – was that they’d probably focused exclusively on getting the rules of the game established. However, they hadn’t paid equal attention to an even more important task: putting in place and/or fine-tuning the governing structure and processes that would make active board member engagement in key governing areas such as annual operational planning and educational performance monitoring possible. It was pretty obvious to me that they’d been seduced by the siren song of an old-fashioned, dangerously simplistic, hopelessly incomplete board capacity building approach commonly known as “policy governance,” and they were paying the price.