Another Superintendent Development Program Question #4:
How do you focus a board of education on instruction rather than managerial tasks? How do you change board operations?
I can only really speak to this in one school district, Randolph, but I realize that Boards of Education may vary greatly from one community to the next. In my experience over the past five years, I’ve found that getting to know and understand our BOE members are important. In my experience, BOE members are well meaning, caring community members who want to make a difference. Each member brings a unique background and often each is keenly focused on a different aspect of school operations.
I think about our meetings and plan for them in much the same way a teacher plans for a class. Because I’m anticipating their questions based on their interests, I come prepared. For example, I have a few BOE members who want to see the data, the comparison, and the deep analysis. I’d be foolish to present an idea without that, wouldn’t I? Likewise I have a BOE member who will always ask the cost and want to know that I’ve researched all other options first. We have BOE members who are deeply interested when we do a presentation on the details of our curriculum, others who love to hear about our student successes in and out of the classroom, and those who analyze the budget detail each month. They all play an important role in governing our school district with me. I learn from them, I’m a better superintendent because of them, and I work hard at my relationship with each of them. Much as I do with the other members of our school community.
Having said all of this about BOE relationships, I also acknowledge the important role I have in focusing the BOE members on the big ideas in education. In setting the agenda with the BOE President, we work hard to make sure BOE members are well informed on the hot issues in education and we include background information on important decisions IN ADVANCE, giving them time to think and to discuss before placing a motion on the agenda. I suppose if we didn’t bring important topics to them, they may be left to focus on the latest complaint heard at the grocery store. Their expectations for me and for the entire school district are much higher than that and we seem to have no difficulty focusing on what’s important in education (realizing that they do tell me about the complaints in the grocery store and then they trust us to do our jobs and take care of it).
As far as how we change BOE operations, the BOE largely “polices” itself. If we’re discussing an issue that’s a building level management problem, someone is sure to speak up and remind the others of their main responsibilities: fiscal, curricular and policy. When I arrived here the BOE was very involved in the entire hiring process to a level I wasn’t accustomed to. I asked Lynda Quick, our BOCES Assistant DS, to come in and facilitate a conversation during a BOE Retreat on goal setting and how they wanted to function as a Board. At one point Lynda asked, “Who hires teachers?” One BOE member replied, “We do.” Lynda helped clarify for the BOE that the superintendent is their primary employee and it’s my responsibility to hire everyone else. We streamlined the process and now one or two BOE members serve on the final hiring committee with me. They trust me to do my job and take me to task if I don’t.
That thinking about hiring was something that evolved over time. They were well intended but misinformed. As I’ve written in other posts in this series, nothing beats an honest, straightforward, respectful conversation. They can expect that from me and I get the same from them. Similar to my relationships with other constituencies within our school community, BOE members want to know where they stand, they want to be a part of the conversation and decision making, and they don’t like to be surprised. That’s reasonable!