What Do Superintendents Do With Rogue School Board Members?
Sometime in your tenure as a school superintendent you will probably be tested by a "rogue" school board member. These problematic school board members come in many different sizes and shapes. Some run for the school board for a specific purpose, for example, to fire a coach or to influence a decision such as to expand the gifted education program. Some might run for the school board to stop potential increases in property taxes. Some might want to oppose current board members due to some positions the board has taken previously. Some even might want to dismiss you so they can be part of employing a new superintendent.
The potential problem for you is that eventually this rogue board member may get three more board members elected who have the same agenda, or convince three current members to champion his/her selected positions. I have written before how important it is for you, the superintendent, to develop personal relationships with each school board member.
The first action I would recommend that a superintendent try is to contact the Illinois Association of School Boards and talk to a field service director about the possibility of IASB providing either school board training or school board self-evaluation. The problem with this approach is that a truly rogue school board member probably will not agree to attend either of these meetings.
A second possible course of action is to talk to the school board president about the actions of the rogue school board member. It is not your role as the superintendent to control the actions of school board members. It is really the role of the school board itself to educate and talk to individual board members. However, this approach might also be met with deaf ears of the rogue member because it may be the reason the individual is acting in this manner.
A third course is to just let the rogue member play out this act. One rogue board member does not constitute a crisis. The problem escalates only if more members or new members join the actions of the rogue member.
Some consultants may propose that the superintendent become more active in the selection and recruiting of potential future board members. In my opinion, this may be a very dangerous undertaking. If, for example, it became known in the public that the superintendent recruited board candidates and those candidates did not get elected, the winning new board members may take exception to the superintendent's involvement in the board election process. Instead, as Doug Eadie in his April 4, 2019, article "What About 'Rogue' Board members?" advises, "develop a profile of desirable board member attributes and qualifications and share this profile widely in your community, principally by booking board members to speak in such forums as the monthly meetings of your chamber of commerce, service clubs and civic associations."
Another key in this process is to structure school board member involvement in interesting and actionable ways. Most people who run to be school board members have a unique blend of skills that you should utilize. Think about this in a personal way: if you were elected to a school board (or any board), you would want to have some value in the work you do. Learn about the talents of your school board members and use these talents to maximize the effect of school district resources. For example, I had a data expert elected to my school board. Initially, we rejected his participation in any school district data analysis. Following several personal conversations I had with this board member, I decided to utilize his data skills to our advantage. He became one of the biggest supporters of our administrative team and gave us valuable information to improve our student academic achievement results.
Recently I was asked for suggestions about talking to an employee about their poor performance. The employee was a long-term school district employee and also a school board member's relative. The supervisor was apprehensive about talking to the employee because of the relationship to the school board member.
All difficult conversations have to start with the willpower to have the conversation. The supervisor needs to make sure that facts have been gathered that are truthful and representative of the employee's job responsibilities. In this particular case, the employee was employed in a non-certified support staff position. It does not matter the position, what matters is that the employee has to be held to the standards required for the position.
School attorney David Braun and I used to do an administrative academy titled "Successful Remediation of the Tenured Teacher." During the presentation David reminded the participants of the following steps:
- What did the evaluator see? What happened?
- What does a GOOD employee (teacher, secretary, janitor, bus driver, etc.) do?
- What MUST this employee do to get better?
- "SHOULD", "may", "ought" are considered fatal words - DO NOT USE THEM
- HOW does the employee do what the evaluator is directing?
- Commit all conversations to writing and have both the employee and supervisor sign
Real school leaders do not jump to conclusions and discipline employees without giving full thought to all of these actions.
Probably the hardest part of having difficult conversations is having the conversation in the first place. Supervisors often want to delay the meeting because they perceive the actual meeting will be contentious or, at the least, difficult to hold. It is best to hold the meeting as soon as possible with the employee to get this perception out of the way. I always felt better after holding the conversation even if the news to the employee was not favorable. At least the first part of the remediation process was complete, and we could move on to fixing the problem.
Tip of the Week
I read a leadership article where the author stated the following, "Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren't adding value."
How we wish either of these was always feasible; realistically, we know we can't "walk out" of many of our meetings. You can, however, politely but firmly keep meetings moving by ceasing to read aloud reports everyone can read for themselves, curtailing unproductive discussion and organizing everyday meetings similarly to the "Consent Agenda" presented to the school board. Do yourself the favor of instructing and training your staff to do the same, then hold them to that expectation. As for phone calls, everyone knows superintendents are busy people, so few will object if, after listening ONCE to the purpose of the call, you forestall the second telling by saying to your caller, "OK. Gotta go. Bye."