Board-Savvy Superintendent                          Page 12


Humiliating a District

Employee in Public  



Richard Mayer

It is 7:21 p.m. on the first Thursday of the month, and the board of education has just moved on to Item 5B on the discussion agenda. The item is a four-page report from Linda Lesko, assistant superintendent for special education, on the district’s preschool program. Lesko delivers a brief — and somewhat disorganized — summary, closing with an offer to “answer any questions the board might have.”

A board member noticeably starts to squirm in his seat. In reading the report several days earlier, he had been bothered by the many misspellings and ungrammatical sentences. To make matters worse, the numbers in the table do not appear to add up correctly, making the board member question whether the report is based on accurate information. He views the report as unprofessional.

A Public Outburst
Tension begins to build during Lesko’s summary. The board member feels let down by the district leadership, and that disappointment is beginning to turn into anger.

How could Lesko write such a sloppy report, knowing it would be distributed to the public both at a school board meeting and on the district’s website? How could the superintendent, Debbie Dineson, have allowed this report to go forward? Had anyone in the district office actually read the report?

With his heart pounding and temperature rising, the board member holds up the short report that is the object of frustration and says: “Did anyone bother to actually proofread this document? It is full of typos and grammatical errors. It reflects very poorly on our district. If a student handed in a report like this, the grade would be an F.”

A hush falls over the room as everyone suddenly realizes that Lesko and Dineson probably feel they have just been humiliated in public.

Preventive Measures
In my 30 years as a school board member, I discovered an unwritten part of a superintendent’s job is to prevent members of the board of education from looking bad. For example, in this fictional situation a seemingly well-meaning board member winds up humiliating a district employee in public. While the characters in the above scenario are fictitious, the circumstances described are anything but. I’ve seen them.

Could Superintendent Dineson have done anything to prevent the school board member’s terrible tirade in a public setting?

First, she could have made sure safeguards were in place so all printed materials that go to the board are reviewed before they are distributed. Even a cursory internal review would have detected the need for revisions in Assistant Superintendent Lesko’s report. Given Lesko’s reputation for sometimes releasing reports that are not quite ready for prime time, the superintendent should have made sure a review process was in place.

In addition, the superintendent may have to do a better job of monitoring her assistant superintendent’s performance. If Lesko is unable to write satisfactory reports, she should be relieved of that duty or even relieved of her position.

Second, Dineson could work on creating a rapport with board members so they will feel comfortable to let her know before the meeting when they receive substandard materials in the board packet. This would allow the superintendent to provide corrected material at the meeting, or at least handle the matter informally outside of the public forum.

Quicker Reaction
Third, perhaps the superintendent could have practiced faster first aid at the meeting by interrupting the board member before he worked himself up into a tirade. The matter could have been controlled had the superintendent been a little quicker in acknowledging the need to bring a more polished version of the report back to the board at a later meeting.

Part of the superintendent’s job is to help prevent board members from looking bad, and in this case there is plenty of room for improvement.

Richard Mayer, a school board member in the Goleta Union School District in Goleta, Calif., is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He adapted this column from his book How Not to Be a Terrible School Board Member (Corwin). E-mail: 





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