Board-Savvy Superintendent                        Page 10


Building on Common Ground  




I doubt if ANYONE can really pinpoint when the style of superintendent leadership began changing from one of autocratic rule to a more democratic and transformational approach. One could argue that an egalitarian approach always has been present, but let’s be honest — superintendents commonly ruled school districts with iron fists and a “my way or the highway,” Theory X management style. In that era, school boards were a necessary nuisance, a figurehead of local control to be endured, rather than embraced.

Here and there vestiges remain of that old-school management, but fortunately those lingering relics soon will disappear entirely. We like to remember that style as being what was necessary for the time, but in reality, it was never effective and it did nothing to build collaborative governance relationships or to promote the cause of public education.

It is not uncommon in thriving school districts to find that the relationship between superintendents and school boards is genuinely collegial and represents a professional partnership between the operation and oversight of a school district. However, that relationship must be nurtured, not to artificially manipulate an outcome or to placate the partnership, but rather because the task of oversight and operation exceeds the individual capabilities of one or the other.

This astute acknowledgment recognizes that, for public education to succeed in the 21st century, oversight and operation must be complementary, and that mutual accountability is a minimal expectation of our results-oriented public education environment.

Generic Understanding
So the questions are: How can superintendents harness the expertise of their school board to assist in reaching those expectations? How do you engage your board and develop a working partnership with a group of people who are technically the boss, but who in reality are your colleagues in school governance?

Continuous education is important for every member of the governance team and professional development always has played an important role for superintendents. Still, in most states, training is not a mandatory requirement for school boards. However, as trustees of multimillion-dollar institutions, we must recognize professional development as a crucial element to a school board’s ability to effectively govern.

Consequently, for the same reasons that administrators and staff are encouraged to attend professional development, school boards also need to understand the importance of their own professional development, and superintendents can probably emphasize that need better than anyone. Stressing the importance of professional development ultimately can remove part of the burden from your shoulders regarding your board’s generic understanding of education issues.

Beyond professional development is the importance superintendents place on the values and beliefs, mission and vision of the school district and how adherence to these statements affects local decision making.

Reacquainting your school boards with these statements of principle, purpose and vision will direct their focus and harness their collective understanding of the criteria for decision making as they are aligned with federal and state requirements, as well as local culture and climate. Where these statements have lost their importance or have been neglected in the current governance model, they need to be revisited, revitalized or replaced.

Mutually Binding
When superintendents and school boards are aligned in common values and purpose, and are engaged in strategic efforts to realize the desirable future of their districts, it leaves minimal opportunities for boardroom friction and community misunderstandings. It is always more difficult to challenge decisions and recommendations that are aligned with a district’s values, purpose or vision for the future.

Accountability remains crucial, but the efforts expended to develop a culture of school board professional development while adhering to the mutually binding, essential statements that define local values, beliefs, purpose and vision are critical to effective, complementary school governance.

Michael Adamson is director of board services with the Indiana School Boards Association in Indianapolis, Ind. E-mail:


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