'Hold Them, Fold Them, or Walk Away’: Twelve Cardinal Rules for Dealing with School Board Conflict

Twelve Cardinal Rules for Dealing with School Board Conflict by Peggy Ondrovich

With the proliferation of single-issue school board members and private agendas, dealing effectively with conflict never has been a more critical skill for a superintendent.

Accepting this reality was difficult for me because I grew up believing that conflict was negative. After 12 years as a school superintendent, I learned that conflict resolution must be a part of my administrative repertoire.

But confronting the problem directly may not always be the best plan. Picking your battles carefully and choosing the ones you can win is essential to superintendent survival.

Blurry Lines

In years past, board members considered their role as community service, and the line between administration and policy-makers was clear. Board members accepted the professional opinions of the administrative staff without question. The issues facing schools are also more complex, creating at times a public agenda that can be hostile. Today the line between roles is blurred, making governance more complex and combative.

Starting off on the right foot is a key ingredient to a positive relationship between the superintendent and the school board members. In the initial interview, a superintendent candidate can ask questions that clarify the roles of both groups. Do board members accept the superintendent's role to recommend and do they formally act on that recommendation? Or do board members want to set the direction and expect the superintendent to follow it?

A colleague once told me that he discovered during a job interview that the board had decided the new superintendent would need to fire several administrators. Knowing that, he withdrew from consideration. His administrative style was clearly one of making a professional determination on his own regarding the competence of existing administrative personnel. Sometimes a "thanks, but no thanks" is the wisest response.

Once an individual accepts a superintendency, the first year is key to a positive relationship with the board. Initial board member orientation is essential to help new members understand their role and the role of the administrative staff. In our district we spend from 8 to 12 hours with new members to familiarize them with the operations of the school corporation and to listen to their concerns and questions.

The superintendent must not forget that each individual had a reason to run for the school board. Understand those reasons early on as you develop the relationship with that member. Communicate regularly.

Cardinal Rules

However, even the best of intentions can run afoul. I have developed 12 cardinal rules of dealing with school board conflict.

* No. 1: Sometimes the horse dies.

Some board members will raise questions simply to stir the pot. At times, the problem resolves itself and other times it burns out. Do not jump in too quickly to resolve conflicts.

A board member calls prior to the scheduled meeting to complain about an issue and threatens to raise the matter at the public meeting. The superintendent scurries around to gather the information to be prepared to respond. The board member never raises the issue. Did the superintendent jump too quickly?

Remember, if the concern is legitimate it should be raised in a public meeting to allow other board members to comment or provide a majority direction. The concern of one may not be the concern of the majority. The entire board should decide the gravity of the problem.

* No. 2: Don't always lead the charge.

Allow board members to confront issues with their peers. Many years ago I had a board member who consistently requested information that overloaded my clerical or administrative staff. I politely indicated I would forward the request to the entire board in the public meeting for their consideration.

If the request is unreasonable, board members will deal with their colleague. It is more difficult to see the superintendent as the sole source of your problem in getting information when the rest of the board is confronting that member.

Whenever a misconduct issue surfaces, allow the board president and other members to deal with the potentially guilty board member. Conflict of interest issues frequently surface, whether related to the employment of a spouse or a relationship through a business. If an issue is raised, let the remaining board members investigate the issue. Stay out of it!

* No. 3: Don't take on a board member's monkey.

Sometimes board members get themselves in trouble with staff or the public over their vote on controversial issues. When they do, do not try to settle the dispute with the other parties. If they feel strongly enough about an issue, let them defend it on their own.

A superintendent tells the story about a board member who confided to some community members that he would vote for an issue that would be before the board. When the vote came, he changed his mind and voted against the recommendation. These community members were livid. When it came time for this individual to be considered for an appointment as director of a not-for-profit organization, these community members did not recommend him. Clearly, this was not the superintendent’s fight.

Factual Evidence

* No. 4: Put them in conflict with the facts, not with you personally.

Create a mirror with the facts and let the reflection speak for itself. Otherwise, you make the issue too personal.

Building projects are always lined with alligators. Do you add to the existing building or build a new facility? If population studies project growth, you may recommend the new school. However, you may use the facts about the expense of a new cost center and its impact on the general operating budget to maintain neighborhood schools. In the end, the facts should mirror the recommendation.

* No. 5: Allow a third party to draw the fire and serve as the lightning rod.

Many times superintendents and school board members recommend actions and vote on issues created by other entities. They may not agree with the actions, but they must follow the law or edict from these agencies. When appropriate, allow those agencies to take some heat off your board members, especially when they have no control over the issue.

A perfect example of this was the federal debate over the education budget. When funding for the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act was reduced, superintendents and school boards probably recommended cuts to their own programs. When that happened, nothing was wrong with letting the federal government take the rap.

* No. 6: Use a strategic plan to keep all parties on the same page.

When you work with your board to develop a strategic plan, it naturally focuses them on the governance function. As the plan considers various objectives, it quantifies issues related to budget and staffing that typically create conflict between school boards and the administrative staff. Have the plan approved by the school board. Then when an errant board member wants to go in a different direction, the superintendent as well as other board members can redirect that members to the board-approved plan.

Some years ago I had a board member who wanted to make certain that school lunch menus reflected "good old-fashioned meat and potatoes" instead of junk food. The strategic plan addressed improving the nutritional value of meals while improving efficiency and student participation. Once we kept numbers on participation per meal for the strategic plan, this issue died a natural death because students were not selecting meat and potatoes and participation was declining.

Short Answers

* No. 7: When you have the chance to say "more" or "less," always say "less."

I received this advice from a very wise school attorney early in my career. Sometimes superintendents are guilty of wanting to share the wealth of their knowledge about an issue. They forget that board members, who usually have a life and responsibilities outside of their board membership, only want a little background and the bottom line.

When a simple question is answered with more than any person ever wanted to know, superintendents can defeat their intentions. I always tell staff, "Be prepared with all information." However, my advice is, "Just tell them it is a penguin, not what it eats or where it lives. Just tell them it is a penguin. If they want to know more, they will ask."

This cardinal rule also will save you from hoof-and-mouth disease, especially if you have a temper. When you are angry, you may say something you will regret. My mother always said, "You cannot take back what you said." So don't say it.

* No. 8: Develop a relationship with each board member.

What you do for one, do for all. I keep a notebook of my calls and visits with board members to make certain I maintain this even-handedness. If you call one board member about an issue, call all of them. If you provide information at the request of one member, give copies to all of them.

Once board members believe they are treated differently, it takes a long time to rectify their perception. When factions develop on the board over an issue, your communications or lack of equality of communications could blow the issue. Exceptions to this rule include communication with the board president over agendas and returning phone calls to individual members who initiate a conversation with the superintendent.

* No. 9: Perception is stronger than truth.

What a board member thinks about an issue can be the truth, no matter how misinformed they are about the matter. This is especially true about new board members who may have heard stories about your leadership style.

Listen, listen, listen. What you learn may help you persuade a board member once you understand what they believe, even if it is wrong given the facts. And if you cannot change the perception, agree to disagree without being disagreeable.

Thomas Shannon, former executive director of the National School Boards Association, said at a recent AASA national conference that school board membership is a "human endeavor where reasonable opinions may differ." If you lose, lose with grace and dignity and do not hold a grudge.

Perceptions Matter

* No. 10: Work with your board to funnel problems through the superintendent, not directly to other staff.

Although board members may perceive themselves as "regular folk" in one way, it never matches the perception of others in the field when they contact a principal or staff member directly. Few staff members welcome this direct contact. First, the individual is concerned about perceived disloyalty to the superintendent. A second concern, depending on the board member who has made the call, is how the information obtained may be used or misused. Encourage board members to contact you with their questions.

Ensure board policies spell out the chain of command for issues so board members feel confident about what to say to a patron who contacts them with a problem. Most board members do not want to put staff on the spot and would prefer making contact with the superintendent. If some board members refuse to cooperate with this rule, simply advise your administrative staff to direct that board member to the superintendent.

* No. 11: Use the expertise of board members and seek their advice and counsel when appropriate.

Avoid the perception that board member opinions do not count and their only role is to support your recommendations. That may have been true in the old days. However, the dynamics of these turbulent times require a different approach.

Board members want to be a part of the action, not sideline cheerleaders. Some board members have special expertise in transportation systems, business organizations, the medical field, or volunteer organizations. Capitalize on that expertise. Some members have a good pipeline to certain groups and can share valuable inside information, when appropriate.

The only caution here is to advise a board member that you are asking for an opinion to consider it along with all other information presented. If you don't follow what he or she suggests, get back to him or her with the reasons why. Otherwise, she will feel her feedback never was considered. And remember if you already know what you want to do, do it. Don't ask the question unless you are prepared to hear the answer, especially the wrong answer for you.

* No. 12: Counterbalance the political power of some board members by taking the high road.

Politics is a reality of the superintendency. There is nothing wrong with understanding the political dynamics of the position or working to counterbalance the political power of some board members. The only option for the superintendent to play in the politics game is to be a person of substance, to be recognized as the educational leader in the community.

Usually the superintendent is an outsider, imported for the job. Board members are many times homegrown graduates of the local high school with connections from childhood. As a result, don't try to compete on the same level. The prestige of the position is on your side. Work hard to be seen in the places that impact children, including community circles. Be articulate and knowledgeable about educational issues. Create an image in your community that the superintendent is the recognized educational leader. That recognition will offset any political dealings with the board.

Proper Perspective

As superintendents consider these 12 rules, remember Kenny Rogers’ advice in "The Gambler": You have to know when to "hold them, fold them, or walk away."

Hold board members to the line when the issue is an ethical one or when the best interests of children are clearly not being considered.

Fold when the issue does not focus on children and will not matter a year from now. A superintendent also should fold when the votes are not there, unless it is an ethical issue.

Walk away when the conflict has moved from a temporary situation to a permanent one. First, determine if the board members in conflict with you are interested in solving the problem. If not, do consider bringing in a third party from the state school boards' association to try to define a treaty.

If all else fails, remember that confrontation is a risky strategy. The school board holds the ultimate power regarding your job security. If the conflict is unrelenting and there are no hopes in the next school board election, activate your placement papers! Seldom does a superintendent beat this kind of negative momentum. Most superintendents who are fired failed to read the handwriting on the wall.

Most of all, keep a proper life perspective about the superintendency. When your career is over, the relationships with people will be the fruit of your labor. Keep your sense of humor. Remember, success is getting up one more time than you're knocked down.

Peggy Ondrovich is superintendent, LaPorte Community School Corporation, LaPorte, Indiana