Board-Savvy Superintendent

Let There Be Light


I recently facilitated a school board retreat where I began with a question I often ask at the start of a workshop: “How many school board members does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” (Credit to my colleague Steve Lamb of the Oregon School Boards Association, who introduced me to this one.)


Answer: None. It is up to the board to say, “Let there be light!”

Nick CarusoNick Caruso

It’s up to the superintendent to decide if it will be incandescent, fluorescent, candle, solar or neon — and to designate his or her staff to actually screw in the lightbulb. And it is up to the board to evaluate the quality of the lighting.

As the meeting progressed, it was mentioned that the superintendent was the person expected to take the minutes at the board meetings because it was a small school district and the board didn’t want to spend money on a recording secretary. Fortunately, one board member at the session picked up on this almost immediately, asking, “Why, she’s screwing in a lightbulb, isn’t she?”

While not the most significant issue dealt with that day, the board decided it would find the resources to allow the superintendent to hire someone to do the minutes and concentrate instead on fully participating in the meeting.

The Small Stuff
One superintendent I knew complained to me she had to go around her buildings every day to ensure the buildings were locked because the principals often forgot to do so. I think you all would suspect the problems in that district were deeper than just whether the buildings got locked up.

How many lightbulbs do you screw in in your daily work? I bet a few. Does your board of education worry about the type of lighting being used?

Particularly in small districts or when your office is located in a school, you can find yourself taking care of work that really isn’t part of your responsibility because it may seem expedient to just get it done yourself. When I owned my own business, I had a policy that I would never ask one of my employees to do something I was not willing to do myself (including crawling 200 feet in a crawl space full of raw sewage). Occasionally, some particularly odious job came along that I just did myself.

However, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. As the CEO of what is usually the largest public enterprise in your community, you shouldn’t be spending your time dealing with the “small stuff.” It’s one thing to set an example; it’s another to allow people to shun work they don’t feel like doing by completing it for them all the time. More importantly, you should be leading your district in ways that set an example for your board.

At times, it is important to let your staff see you do something outside of the usual job description. Nothing sends a message more quickly than when a superintendent bends down to pick up a piece of paper lying on the floor, instead of calling a custodian. On the other hand, if you are regularly checking the locks on the doors or sweeping the floor in the school gym (I saw that once), you not only are sending a message to your staff, but you are also sending the wrong message to your board.

What’s Expected
The point is, you can spend your time doing the work others should be doing or spend time doing the things only you can do. There isn’t generally time to do both. Clear expectations should exist for what your staff members should be doing, and they should be held accountable for doing those things.

Does the school board get the opportunity to say, “Let there be light”? One time things get confusing is when no clear definition exists for what is expected. If the board says, “Let there be light,” then there needs to be light. Your work, the board’s work and the staff’s work all need to revolve around creating light. If you are not doing that, people can focus on a lot of things that aren’t going to get the job done.

Work with the board to ensure there are clear expectations of what needs to be done. Clear expectations should be ratified as goals by the board so that everyone understands what the work of the district is. These goals should be disseminated throughout the district, and everyone needs to understand that decisions made by both the board and staff should be directly related to those goals.

Finally, there needs to be time at the board meeting to discuss the quality of lighting. Information about how students are performing on tests and other measurements should be standard fare at school board meetings. I strongly suggest to boards there be an agenda item called “Report on Goals.” This can give particular data to support what is happening in the classroom or upcoming agenda items that the board will see soon related to achieving the goals.

Board discussion should be focused on what students are doing, how staff are working to improve instruction (and thus improving achievement) and what the board needs to do to support those efforts. In doing this, the board will move its work from that of operating the district to the performance of the students.

Nick Caruso is senior staff associate for field service and coordinator of technology with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education in Wethersfield, Conn., E-mail: