From the Field: What Did You Say?

By Reatha Owen
Journal | March/April 2024

How often have you heard that com­munication is key? We communicate every day of our lives, whether it be spoken, written, or through body language. Why is it so important? In simple terms, communication is the act of transferring information from one person to another. In today’s high-tech, high-speed world, com­munication is more important than ever, yet we seem to devote less and less time to really listening to and understanding one another.

Let’s look at how boards of education can effectively com­municate with the community, the superintendent, and the board governance team.

Communicating with the Community
In its essence, Foundational Principle 2, The Board Connects with the Community, means that the school board engages in an ongoing two-way conversa­tion with the entire community that fosters dialogue, delibera­tion, and collaborative thinking around common interests for their schools. This conversation is essential to create trust and support among the community, board, superintendent, and staff.

Often school districts and school boards are very good at getting information out to their commu­nities, but activities that provide two-way conversations are more challenging. As with any communi­cation, it needs to have a plan with a clear purpose and intended outcome. A few questions that help guide this work are:

What does the board hope to learn, decide, or accomplish from this activity?
How will the board or district use the information in its leadership role?

Consider the following as ways to involve community members at various levels:

  • Annual State of the District event — The full community is invited for an update on district goals and accomplish­ments over the year and to discuss priorities the district should consider when revising district goals for the next year.
  • Committees — Include par­ents and/or other community members on board and super­intendent committees where possible.
  • Focus Groups — Hold focus groups for the purpose of gath­ering information on a specific topic identified by the board, for example, student learning, facil­ity changes/construction, etc.

When boards engage in two-way conversations with the community, they understand the community’s educational aspirations and desires for the education of the students, and this allows them to advocate for district improvement and inform the community of the district’s performance by telling its story.

Communicating with the Superintendent
Foundational Principle 4, The Board Delegates Authority, states that the board delegates authority to the superinten­dent to manage the district and provide leadership for the staff. Such authority is delegated and communicated through written board policies and operating parameters.

Leadership guru John Max­well said, “If you want to do a few small things right, do them yourself. If you want to do great things and make a big impact, learn to delegate. Delegation is difficult for anyone accustomed to direct action. As a governance team, delegation requires a pro­ductive relationship with the superintendent that is built on trust and clear communication regarding expectations. This ensures there is agreement and understanding of the school board’s and superintendent’s unique but separate roles as lead­ers for the district.

Clear and concise commu­nication between the board and the superintendent is essential in reaching district goals. To com­municate effectively the board uses “one voice” to direct the superintendent. What does IASB say about speaking with “one voice” to the superintendent?

Speaking with one voice means the board needs to direct its superintendent with one voice on any given issue. The power of the board is not as individuals but as a governance team entrusted by the community with the authority to govern and lead the district. The diversity of viewpoints from board members is encouraged and must be respected. Votes most likely will not be unanimous; howev­er, those who lose a vote must accept that the board has spoken as one and that its decision must be implemented as decided. The superintendent cannot work effec­tively under seven different bosses.

Communicating with the Board Team
Foundational Principle 6, The Board Takes Responsibility for Itself, states that the board collec­tively and individually takes full responsibility for board activity and behavior. The school board governs the district as a team of eight, seven board members and the superintendent. While the board must operate within legal parameters, good gover­nance requires the board to be  responsible for itself, its processes, and its contribu­tions. In order for this to happen effectively, commu­nication is essential.

Communication along with active listening are important pieces of how board members express their opinions and deliberate actions in leading the district. Active listening helps build relationships, solve problems, resolve conflicts, and improve accuracy. During any con­versation with another person, you can detect reactions through body language — the set of the mouth, slope of the shoulder, or expressions around the eyes. These should not be ignored when you consider research that indicates 80% of communication is non-verbal.

Consider taking some time to learn about your communication style, which says a lot about you as a leader. Are you supportive and relaxed? Or are you more intense in your delivery, pushing your fellow board members to act? There are various communi­cation style surveys that the team can use to under­stand how to communicate with each other. I suggest Straight Talk from Leading Resource LCC, devel­oped by Eric Douglas, who is the author of Straight Talk: Turning Communication Upside Down for Strategic Results at Work. There is a free tool online that can help you get started.

I am reminded of a saying my mother used, “It is not what you said; it was how you said it.”

By learning more about the team’s various com­munication styles, your conversations are focused and clear. With no room for misunderstanding or alter­ation of messages, the potential for conflict decreases. In situations where conflict does arise, effective com­munication is a key factor to ensure that the situation is resolved in a respectful manner.

The ability to communicate clearly is a vital life skill. It’s never too late to work on your communica­tion skills. Remember, those who can communicate effectively with clear direction can help to deliver high-quality results. By communicating effectively, you can build strong relationships within your gover­nance team, community, and staff to ensure cohesion and long-term success.

Reatha Owen is the Senior Field Services Director with the Illinois Association of School Boards. Resources associated with this article, including a link to the online “Starting Right” tool, are available at