Board-Savvy Superintendent

The Lone Ranger on the Board

by Nicholas D. Caruso Jr.

A friend of mine is a retired superintendent who decided to re-enter the workforce in a small district that needed only a part-time superintendent (two days a week). He was the 9th superintendent this district saw in a two-year period.

The main problem was that on days he wasn’t present, one of his board members appointed himself the role of operations chief of the school district. He was in the schools every day. He met with contractors on renovation projects and even picked out the color of the new carpet—without consulting anyone.

No matter how many times the superintendent spoke to the board member and to the rest of the board, the behavior continued. My frien d lasted a year—longer than his eight predecessors. (In fairness, a couple were interims while the board searched for a permanent superintendent.)

Undermining Others

A school board’s ability to govern and the superintendent’s ability to lead is undermined when an individual board member assumes the role of the Lone Ranger. While the Lone Ranger can be identified in several different ways, a few common styles of behavior are typically present.

• A board member presents a report at a board meeting that consists of several pages of yellow, legal-sized paper with hundreds of problems that she had seen on her latest visit to the high school. Included are a burned-out light bulb in front of the principal’s office, a bucket of rags next to the janitor’s closet and the utterance of a profanity among some students. She expects a report from the superintendent at the next meeting to answer each issue.

• The board chair, a retired businessman, makes his school board service a full-time job. He chairs all subcommittees, negotiates the teachers’ and administrators’ contracts alone and has brow-beaten the rest of the board into accepting his behavior.

• A board member, having heard complaints about a teacher’s performance, has taken it upon herself to investigate the staff member. She shows up in the classroom every day for a week and disrupts the instruction by criticizing or correcting the teacher in front of her students.

• One board member is meeting privately with the president of the teachers’ union to discuss the upcoming teacher contract negotiations.

Proper Orientation

If you have a school board member (or more than one) who exhibits behaviors like these, you could be in for a rough ride. His or her behavior will interfere with your ability to operate the district and will more than likely shorten your tenure in your superintendency if you do not deal with it quickly.

In fairness, many Lone Rangers act the way they do because they don’t know any better. For these individuals, a good solid board orientation may be all that is needed to get them working with their fellow members. Consider asking your state school boards association to provide a facilitator to lead a workshop for the full board on roles and responsibilities.

I have encountered a few school board members who, even after getting a clear explanation of their role, decide they know better. They realize they are not acting according to the job description, but they shamelessly declare “so what?”

Unfortunately, a board member who acts like this can cause chaos. As in most cases with an errant board member, the board chair needs to become involved. If the chair can’t counsel the board member into better behavior, then the board must. It is a responsibility of the board to see that members do not take command of day-to-day operations. A board self-evaluation may be the best way to accomplish this because the intention is not to ostracize the individual but to help bring him or her on board.

Board Pressure

In the case of the chair assuming too much responsibility, the rest of the board needs to understand how that will affect decision making in the district. Often the same steps already mentioned will help bring the board around. In more than one case, when I was working with a board, it was the board members themselves who decided the chair needed to be reminded that his authority was limited to certain aspects of running meetings and such and that he did not “run” the board.

In one case the school board actually voted to remove the person as chair. In another instance the chair was pressured to resign. Obviously, as superintendent, you must tread carefully and not be too involved in these discussions, but when your ability to operate the district legally is jeopardized by a board member’s interference (such as discussing negotiations issues behind closed doors), you need to bring this matter to the board’s attention.

In the school district where a board member was paying classroom visits to evaluate a teacher, the superintendent invited the board member to his office where he explained to her that she had no more right to disrupt a classroom than any other member of the public and if she did it again she would be arrested for trespassing.

In the end, much of this can be alleviated if the school board is spending its time on leadership and dealing with vision. As long as board members are wrapped up in policy discussion, goals and student achievement issues, they will be too busy to get into trouble.

Nick Caruso, a former school board member, is senior staff associate for field services at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, 81 Wolcott Hill Road, Wethersfield, CT 06109. E-mail: ncaruso@cabe.org