What the Board Needs from the Superintendent

This post is a follow up to a previous post What a Superintendent Needs from the Board. I thought it is only fair to write about the reverse of this, what a board needs from the superintendent.

Even though I have never been a school board member, I have worked with numerous boards in my role as superintendent. As a former superintendent for over 15 years in three different districts, I have had the pleasure of working with some of the best board members and, in turn, highly effective boards. Years later, I consider several of these board members good friends.

It is crucial for the board and superintendent to be united in their work. Leading a school district is a challenging job even in the best of circumstances. A board and superintendent have the responsibility of educating all students in an ever-changing world with limited resources and amid political pressures. For a school system to help all students thrive as learners, the board and superintendent must know their roles and work as a team.

I believe the primary responsibility of a superintendent is to lead a team in creating and/or advancing a culture of learning. This culture of learning should include a common understanding of the district’s mission. (I advocate a learner-centered mission.) The mission should enable the faculty/staff to value and incorporate all students’ unique talents and interests, so learning is authentic and students have ownership of their learning.

What does the board need from the superintendent?

Create and manage a responsive system

The heart and soul of an effective school system is student learning, which should be how the superintendent spends the majority of his/her time. However, if the superintendent and his/her team do not create and implement essential processes to be responsive to the needs of students, faculty/staff, parents, and the community, tactical issues will consume the time and attention of district leaders and will likely spill over to the board. In other words, the board will receive calls and emails because the district is not responsive. This will cause the roles of the board and superintendent to be blurred and keep everyone from spending their time and energy on student learning. Below are just a few examples of processes (not an all-inclusive list), which will increase the likelihood of having a responsive system:

  • Effective processes for students, parents, faculty, staff, and community members to partner, volunteer, give input, and/or express concerns.
  • Effective and legal processes in place to refer, identify and serve students with special needs (special education, 504, dyslexia, etc.). Note: Having these systems are the bare minimum and additional systems (i.e. a culture of learning) should be in place to assure every learner’s interests and needs are being incorporated and met.
  • An effective communication system for school announcements, weather days, school events, etc.
  • Safety: procedures for tornado drills, fire drills, intruder drills, etc. are clearly communicated and practiced.
  • Transportation: bus routes clearly mapped out and communicated, bus drivers properly trained; and buses properly serviced to ensure safely transporting students to/from schools.
  • School drop off and pick up procedures are clearly defined, communicated and followed to ensure safety and efficiency.
  • Well managed child nutrition programs, which provide nutritional food at a reasonable price.

The superintendent needs to ensure there are effective processes in place at every level thus enabling the superintendent and board to focus on student learning.

Support and advance the mission and vision of the district

A district’s mission should excite and unite all those involved, including the board and superintendent. (Again, I advocate a learner-centered mission.) A clear and compelling mission and vision increase the likelihood everyone is moving in the same direction. Hence, the superintendent and his/her team should be fully committed to carrying out the mission of the district, not just “playing at it.” Our children’s futures are far too important not to fully commit to furthering the mission of the district. 

Be a continuous learner

The superintendent should be a lifelong learner. If schools are all about the learning, then the leader of the system (the superintendent) should be the lead learner. S/he should be reading books, articles, listening to podcasts, and actively participating in meaningful, high-quality professional learning, which furthers the mission of the system and increases his/her effectiveness as a leader. As a word of caution, a superintendent just being physically present at an event/conference does not ensure it is a “match” for the system’s direction nor does it automatically guarantee the superintendent will be learning. The superintendent should choose wisely.

More specifically, the superintendent should be increasing his/her repertoire of what is possible, which includes rethinking the structure and design of traditional school. I am an advocate of a learner-centered approach in which those in schools response to the needs and interests of learners rather than students “fitting into” the current system. If we want our children to be capable of thriving in a continuously changing world, we need to redesign schools to be responsive to the needs and interests of learners.

In my previous post, I wrote about the board being open to the possibilities of what is possible for our students. The superintendent should be the lead learner in the system. In addition, s/he should provide learning opportunities for the board and lead the board members in discussing the possibilities of what can be for their learners.

Be an effective communicator

Communication is essential to the effectiveness of the district. Once the board and superintendent have come to a consensus about how they will communicate, the superintendent needs to follow through. Nothing is more frustrating for a board than when the superintendent does not communicate with the board. This might include a weekly electronic communication to the board, calling or emailing if there is a crisis (bus accident, student seriously injured at school, the death of a student or staff, teacher/staff arrested, etc.), etc.

A board member should never be surprised by hearing about such an event from community members. In addition, this is an opportunity for board members to use their leadership to ease concerns and/or build capacity among parents and community members.

The superintendent should provide background information prior to making recommendations at a board meeting. S/he should value the board and make sure they have the information needed in a timely manner to fully understand and consider the superintendent’s recommendation.

Empower the board to advocate for the district (i.e. CHILDREN)

The superintendent should support the board members in having meaningful ways to talk with community members about the needs of the district. To accomplish this, the superintendent should initiate profound conversations with the board about specific issues impacting students and/or the district. These conversations and talking points (provided by the superintendent if needed) should equip and empower board members to talk about the changing nature of school, the needs and interests of students and how the system may need to be redesigned to meet these needs.

When the superintendent and board have a shared understanding of issues, they can become ambassadors within the community and can build support for the district. This includes increasing the capacity of the community to embrace the changes, which may need to occur within the district.

Recruit and retain people to carryout the mission

The board wants the superintendent to recruit and recommend the employment of people who embrace the mission and have the capacity to carry out the district’s mission. There is nothing more exhilarating than working together to achieve something greater than oneself.

Once the right people are employed, the superintendent and his/her team should heavily invest in their growth and development through high quality and meaningful professional learning. Everyone within the district should be a continuous learner.

Build relations and unity

Superintendents should build positive and productive relationships with all stakeholders. They should work hard to get to know board members, principals, central office staff, parents, teachers, students, community members, etc. The superintendent should foster these same relationship building skills among their staff, specifically between central office staff and principals, between school principals/assistant principals and faculty/staff, and between teachers/staff and students. This is really a district/school culture issue of treating people with respect and leveraging everyone’s ability to further the mission of the district.

Developing positive relationships requires the superintendent to be a collaborator, be a good listener, value others, respond to concerns in a sincere and forthright manner. This does not mean the superintendent needs to agree with everyone, but s/he should value each person and respond with respect and dignity.  

Treat All People with Fairness and Respect

There are times when children or staff need an advocate. The superintendent should stand up for a student or staff member if s/he has been treated unfairly. The superintendent has a moral obligation to lead in the best interest of all children and to be fair to all employees, even if it is not popular.

I have had a board member demand I terminate someone who was highly effective in their role. I defended the staff member even when it negatively impacted me. I have also experienced situations in which children were not treated with fairness and respect. Again, it is morally imperative the superintendent intervene and do the right thing. Right is right.

Be Courageous and Do the Right Thing

Being a superintendent can be challenging, especially when terminating personnel. There have been many instances in which I have recommended the termination of a good person; after ample coaching and support, the person was still ineffective in their role. The superintendent needs to assure, however, the employee has experienced high-quality professional learning, received meaningful feedback, support and coaching through a clearly defined and implemented evaluation process. If this is the case and as hard as it is to terminate someone, the superintendent has an obligation to terminate the employee if this in the best interest of students.

Work Hard

I believe in hard work. Leading a district and empowering the next generation of leaders is just too important not to give one’s best effort every day. As stated earlier, a superintendent should not just “play at it.” S/He should be ambitious for all children as evident by how he/she uses his/her time, effort and best thinking.

Claim Mistakes

All leaders make mistakes, especially if we are pushing the boundaries and leading a district forward. When a superintendent makes a mistake, s/he should claim it, apologize, learn from it and move on. This transparency builds trust with the board and all stakeholders. When there is a trusting relationship, the superintendent and board typically work cohesively to lead the system forward.

Follow Policy

The superintendent should follow board policy. If board policy is not current or in the best interest of students, then the superintendent should talk with the board about revising board policy. (Side note: I believe less policy is better than more policy and board policy should reference state or federal law when possible.) 

Discuss your Concerns about Board Members with Board Leadership in Private

Even if a board member is ineffective, disrespectful and/or disruptive, I believe the superintendent should never say anything negative about this board member outside of the board leadership. S/He should address his/her concerns with the board president and vice-president and let them manage the board member. Nothing is gained by disparaging or embarrassing a board member publicly.

Be of Good Character

A few more reminders for superintendents to be of good character:

  • Be ambitious for all students.
  • Be honest
  • Be transparent
  • Be a team player.

A Special Thank You to School Superintendents

Most superintendents are experienced educators and have chosen this occupation to make a difference in the lives of young people. In other words, their hearts are in the right place. However, being a superintendent can also be a 24/7, challenging, complex, multifaceted, politically charged, overwhelming, and sometimes lonely experience. Most serve to make a difference in the lives of children and thus I thank them for their commitment and leadership to children.

What are your thoughts on what the board needs from the superintendent for the district to thrive?

What are other ways the board can advocate for the collective good of students and how can the superintendent support their advocacy efforts?

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3 thoughts on “What the Board Needs from the Superintendent”

  1. This is a helpful blog post. I am an assistant superintendent and don’t work with the board firsthand. But I share the same perspective as you. The relationship between the superintendent and board needs to be one of transparency and unity about the priorities of the parish.

  2. I found your blog on LinkedIn. I am a superintendent in Texas. I agree with your remarks. I have a supportive board and they exemplify collaboration and team work. I also invest in building trust with them by being transparent. Again, spot on comments.

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