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Boards, Superintendents Should Collaborate More

Friction among school board members and between boards and superintendents makes recruiting people to serve on boards or work as administrators harder, Dr. Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, told Education World. A recent report from the New England School Development Council offers strategies to help build strong school board-superintendent teams. Included: Practical suggestions from the report and comments from officials of national school leadership organizations.

School boards need to focus more on setting policy and less on micro-managing superintendents and school systems, according to a New England School Development Council (NESDC) report. The council advises boards and superintendents to work more as teams and less as adversaries.

Solid teamwork is the foundation for rebuilding a leadership structure in school systems, said Dr. Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. Houston was one of 36 educators who contributed to the NESDC report, Thinking Differently: Recommendations for 21st Century School Board/Superintendent Leadership, Governance, and Teamwork for High Student Achievement.

"I thought it was a good step forward," Houston told Education World. "Governance is a huge issue right now. I don't think [the report] solves all the problems, but if some of the recommendations are implemented, it's a good start."


Highlights of the NESDC Leadership Report

The New England School Development Council (NESDC) made several recommendations for building school board-superintendent leadership team relationships in its report "Thinking Differently." Among the council's recommendations are the following:

* Clearly define roles of board members and superintendents.

* Provide boards and superintendents more training in working together.

* Develop better college training programs for superintendents.

* Adopt national certification requirements for superintendents.

* Create a national center for school board-superintendent leadership.

* Revise state laws to enable boards and superintendents to meet privately to periodically evaluate their work.

Printed copies of the report are available from the Educational Research Service in Arlington, Virginia, 1-(800) 791-9308.

Confusion about board and superintendent responsibilities -- sometimes among members of the same board -- bogs down progress in school systems and frustrates both administrators and board members, according to Houston.

"I think there has been a sense that communities wanted to take back some control of the schools," Houston commented. "A lot of people think the board is there to fix things rather than be a policy body." Increasingly, people are running for school boards to pursue issues that concern only them, and boards become a clash of philosophies, he said.

Brenda Welburn, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, another panelist, said that some people need to change their perspectives before joining a board.

"People run for school boards with an adversarial attitude," Welburn told Education World. "They don't approach the superintendent as an employee who needs to be supported."

Dr. Richard H. Goodman, a senior associate at NESDC and one of the report's authors, added that he would like to de-politicize boards of education by having candidates run without party affiliations.


Friction among school board members and between boards and superintendents makes recruiting people to serve on boards or work as administrators harder, Houston said. "There is a huge shortage of superintendents, and a lot has to do with governance. Part of it is, they just don't want to work with boards."

School board members who try to work on broader issues often become discouraged by board politics and decide not to run for re-election, Houston added.

"More people would [run for school boards] if they could focus on education issues aimed at improving education for all children," commented Goodman.

Bryant, though, said the climate in a community determines whether people run for school boards, and there is more than one reason behind the turnover among superintendents.

Both board members and administrators are under pressure from the public to provide quick fixes for educational problems, which can cause stress, Bryant explained. New programs can take a year or two to produce changes. "It's important to give boards and superintendents time to see results," according to Bryant.


The report calls for school boards and superintendents to better define their roles and then work together toward common goals. School boards, for example, should focus more on setting policy and leave management issues -- such as contracts, personnel matters, and transportation -- to superintendents.

Both school boards and superintendents need more training in working together, the report said. Superintendents also need better college preparation for their jobs, and national certification requirements for superintendents should be adopted.

Also recommended is the creation of a national center for school board-superintendent leadership, which would train boards and administrators to work collaboratively and effectively.


One suggestion the report makes is that states revise "sunshine," or open meeting, laws and allow boards and superintendents to meet privately to evaluate their work. Although a school board must conduct its business in public, boards and superintendents should be able to speak openly about their relationships in private, according to the report. Participants would continue to refrain from taking action behind closed doors.

"Sunshine laws in many states require all school board sessions to be open to the public," the report states. "Despite certain clear advantages, we believe such laws can sometimes impede the smooth working of a collaborative leadership team."

Victor Perpetua is a lawyer with the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, which monitors the state's right-to-know law. He said relaxing sunshine laws might make it easier for boards to operate but that easier is not always what is best for the public.

"Without question, sunshine laws, which make people operate in the public eye, add a layer of complexity and scrutiny to the work of school boards," Perpetua told Education World. "But legislation in every state has determined that the benefits outweigh the costs."

Existing legislation does provide opportunities for boards to meet privately on certain issues, Perpetua added. "Obviously, it would be easier for everyone in government to work in the dark," he said. "But that increases the risk of abuse of authority."

Contributors to the NESCD report, though, maintain that certain matters, such as board and superintendent evaluations, should take place out of the public eye to allow for more-open discussion.

"There is a huge conflict between the public's right to know and right to gnaw," Houston said. Some people attend school board meetings just to gnaw on, or rehash, certain issues. "There is a level of scrutiny that can impede functioning. Certain candor needs to take place between the board and superintendent that can't be done in public. ... But that does not mean that everything should be done in secret."

Goodman, another contributor to the report, agreed. "If we are going to get boards and superintendents to work as teams, they should be allowed to meet privately and settle issues, report back to the public what they've done, but take no action on policy."

Current sunshine laws allow boards very little room for self-critique, according to Bryant. "A board should be able to do strategic planning," she said.


Feedback from school board members, administrators, education professors, and educational organizations has been very positive since the report was released to the education community last spring, according to Goodman. "People agree that governance is crucial to high student achievement," he said.

All the panelists said they hope local boards and superintendents will review the recommendations and begin some implementation and that state legislatures will consider funding for teamwork training and upgrading standards.

"We all are trying to look at leadership in different ways,'' said Welburn, of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

The report also supports efforts by the National School Boards Association to spell out school board responsibilities, said NSBA executive director Dr. Anne L. Bryant. "It helps people to define what they are supposed to be doing," she told Education World.

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