November/December 2019

Keys to Cultivating a Positive Board/Superintendent Relationship

From the Field by Perry Hill IV

The relationship between the board of education and the superintendent is essential to effective governance. Four elements that promote a productive relationship between the board and its superintendent are communication, trust, roles and responsibilities, and expectations.

Experience and data show that open and honest communication is the most important aspect of the board/superintendent relationship. Communication seems as though it should be instinctive, but all too often something goes astray. Effective two-way communication involves both parties not only listening and hearing, but also understanding and seeking clarity when necessary. In a healthy relationship, disagreements — topical or philosophical — may emerge, but the professional bond will not waiver because it is rooted in mutual respect along with open and honest communication.

A second key element is trust. As with communication, trust works two ways. The board trusts that the superintendent will fulfill his or her duties to run and improve the district, and the superintendent trusts that the board will focus on what is best for the district and how to best move the district forward. Author and business educator Steven Covey stated, “When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.” Keep in mind that trust is fragile: Once broken, the relationship will suffer.

A productive board/superintendent relationship hinges on the third element, acceptance of one’s roles and responsibilities. To be an effective employer of the superintendent, the board must first understand its own duties and apply this understanding to transact the work of the board. A productive board stays within its roles to govern the district through policy; to identify intended results; and to act or vote on matters that answer the questions of “what,” “why,” and “how much.” Once a board embraces and embeds these primary roles, it will greatly complement the role of its superintendent. The role charged to the superintendent consists of managing the district; strategizing by answering the questions of “how,” when,” “where,” and “by whom;” recommending a course of action to the board; implementing board decisions; ensuring compliance to board policy; and working toward overall improved district performance.

Communication and trust, as well as roles and responsibilities, spawn the development of the fourth element — expectations. These expectations involve communication from the board to the superintendent. They also involve communication from the superintendent to the board.  The board and its superintendent must engage in open, focused dialogue to reach clarity on expectations. Such clarity might address desired methods and frequency of contact, creating the meeting agenda, identifying data to monitor goals, and much more. Ultimately, the dialogue will yield what we refer to as “Board/Superintendent Expectations,” which serve as an ongoing reference tool for both the board and the superintendent on key areas of mutual interaction. Securing clarity on such areas, early in the board/superintendent partnership, promotes fairness, prevents assumptions, and preserves team solidarity.

Utilizing these elements will aid in the construction and refinement of a productive board/superintendent relationship. Remember, this relationship is vital. After all, outcomes derived from a solid relationship serve as a bedrock for optimal district performance.

Perry Hill IV is an IASB Field Services Director serving Egyptian, Illini, Shawnee, and Wabash Valley divisions.