ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Four ingredients help build important district partnership
By Keven Forney
Keven Forney retired as superintendent from Oakwood CUSD 76 in 2012, and is now an adjunct instructor at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais and an educational consultant.
The relationship between the board president and the superintendent is as important as the relationship the superintendent has with the entire board of education when it comes to the successful governance of a school district. In fact, the board president-superintendent relationship needs to be a little deeper, one in which both parties work together and mutually support each other. Writing in the American School Board Journal in fall 2008, Doug Eadie termed this relationship “an indispensible partnership.”
For superintendents, a positive relationship with their board president provides them with the support they feel they need to work with the board as a whole. “I feel supported in my decisions,” says Rantoul High School District Superintendent Scott Amerio, “I do not have to worry about what recommendations I am making to the board; I am allowed to make those recommendations based on what I feel is right.”
Board presidents benefit by having more insight into the decisions made and recommendations placed before the board, and are much more able to lead the board in the discharge of their duties by operating from a proactive stance.
The board work is more productive and focused on that which is truly “board work.” Steve Bainbridge, board president in Jamaica CUSD 12 says, “It is very important for running the district. If we understand each other it enables me to get the rest of the board working properly and efficiently. How would a board meeting look if I didn’t have a good relationship with my superintendent?”
So, what do good superintendent-board president relationships look like in Illinois school districts? What elements are associated with “good partnerships” in systems that claim them? To answer those questions, several board presidents and superintendents in east-central Illinois were asked to identify what they felt made their relationships “good partnerships.” Here are four areas those individuals find important:
Communication, often characterized as honest and open, was identified most frequently by superintendents and board presidents as the most important aspect. Board presidents want to be informed about any developing issues or ideas the superintendent may be considering well before he or she reaches the recommendation stage, challenges the superintendent may face from individual board members, and any information the superintendent can give on the current state of the district, among other things.
District superintendents value having the opportunity to communicate on those and other topics directly to the board president. Superintendents also want to hear what the board’s reaction might be to a particular recommendation, the board president’s perspectives on district issues, any relationship matters with individual board members that the superintendent may want to improve, and informal indications of how their performance is being judged.
The preferred tone of the communication in the board president-superintendent partnership is generally described as casual or informal, but a more formal model is used by some. The prevailing mode of communication is verbal, usually in face-to-face meetings or by telephone.
There is some use of electronic communication, but board presidents and superintendents who use it limit the information exchanged that way out of concern for requests for disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). John Dimit Jr., board president in Urbana School District 116, talked about communication this way: “Communication is really the key. I talk with my superintendent once or twice a week. I always let him know how I plan to vote so he knows why, if I don’t vote his way. Likewise, I expect him to let me know what he is bringing up.”
Talking with board presidents and superintendents, it is clear that both sides of this crucial partnership want to feel free to communicate without fear of offending the other person. Each side must feel free to disagree without fear of damaging their relationship. Danville School District 118 Board President Bill Dobbles said, “We almost always agree, but when we have disagreements we almost always talk it out. Usually, the superintendent is the one to put out the olive branch.”
This is echoed by his superintendent, Mark Denman, who said, “We want a relationship in which you can disagree and still have a good working relationship.” This openness leads to another important quality for communication, in which both sides are perceived as being totally truthful, or honest, in their communication, regardless of the expected impact that information may have.
Trust is essential
Trust is a different attribute than communication. Communication is something a person does. Trust is a quality bestowed on one person by another. It usually results from the actions and beliefs that one exhibits, but it is generally a quality that must be developed over time and can very easily be lost.
Many superintendents and board presidents point to trust as a key element for a good partnership, second only to communication. Most also indicate that they start their relationship by giving their trust to the other person.
The board president enters into the relationship with the superintendent trusting that person to perform his or her duties in a competent manner and work to improve the district. Dimit describes this trust, by saying: “I expect our superintendent to be the best manager in town.” There is trust that the superintendent will provide all the information that the board president and the entire board need to make decisions.
There is trust that the superintendent will be a reliable partner for the board president and provide active support for his or her leadership. The superintendent begins the relationship trusting the board president to be someone who will be his or her advocate with the rest of the board. There is trust that the board president will work to be an effective leader of the school board. Danville’s Dobbles sums up that trust as: “The superintendent trusts that the board president will develop a team with the board members.”
Superintendents also enter into this relationship trusting the board president will have a focus on the best interests of the school district and a clear understanding of the role each has. As Dobbles says, “our superintendent should be able to trust that the board president knows the roles of the superintendent and the board, and trust that I will always try to support him. He’s the educational expert.” Clearly, both the board president and superintendent enjoy a level of trust at the start of a relationship; this trust can either be strengthened or lost. The element of trust in the board president-superintendent partnership is related to communication in that communication between the two partners is a building block of trust. Good communication deepens the trust the board president and superintendent have for each other. Poor communication can destroy it.
Defined roles, shared duties
For some board presidents and superintendents, clearly defining the role each plays in not only the partnership but also in the district is an important element of their partnership. Superintendents in positive relationships with their board presidents tend to describe their counterparts as “not a micromanager.” Board presidents claiming a good partnership with their superintendents echo this, expressing it as, “I am not a micromanager; my superintendent manages the district and I lead the board.” A person can find numerous iterations of that same thought in articles in the journals of both the National School Board Association and Illinois Association of School Boards. Danville Superintendent Mark Denman is representative of the view of most superintendents, as he describes his board president, Dobbles, saying: “Bill knows his role. He knows the board members, is visible, and has integrity and an open mind. He has taken advantage of training from IASB to come to understand his role.” Indicative of the feeling of board presidents are the words of Les Hoveln, former board president of St. Joseph-Ogden High School District 305, “I don’t believe in micromanagement. We hire administrators to do their jobs; I try to step aside and let them do their job.” Good partnerships hold to the view that the board president is the executive officer of the school board and the superintendent is the executive officer of the school district. Recognition of the distinct roles each plays is an important foundational piece for an effective partnership between the board president and the superintendent.
Along with establishment of defined roles is the sharing of leadership tasks. Maybe sharing is not often as correct a word as delegation. In many districts the board president and superintendent work together to develop the agenda and also meet to jointly review both the agenda and information packet in preparation for the board meeting. But, in some cases, there is a definite delegation of tasks between the board president and superintendent. When Jean Neal was in her first year as superintendent of Georgetown-Ridge Farm USD 4 she worked with a board president who was adept and experienced at dealing with the media and the public. “I kept her as the point of contact for any statements or information about the district. She handled this type of thing with her job and she was very good at it.” St. Joseph-Ogden High School Superintendent Jim Acklin relied on his former board president, Les Hoveln, to head up some “little projects.” such as construction of the school’s baseball press box and dealing with vendors and contractors on materials and colors in some major renovations occurring at the school. “He enjoys making things better for the students and these small jobs are ways he can make a direct contribution,” Acklin said. Jim Owens, superintendent at Westville CUSD 2, uses his board president as the final authority on what he will recommend. Owens said, “I meet with him and go over the items. I lay them out and tell him what I plan to recommend and why. I respect the fact that he is in tune with the board and the community. If he agrees, that is what I recommend. If he doesn’t, I do not recommend that particular course of action.” Owens feels that this greatly increases the sense of ownership felt by his board president, which might be its real value to all board president-superintendent partnerships.
“I would tell any new board president that one of the first things you need to do is to have an unofficial meeting with your superintendent about expectations, for both of you,” said Jamaica’s board president Steve Bainbridge. Any partnership can only succeed if both members know what the other expects from them. The same is true with the board president and superintendent. Expectations can address a number of matters, including the best way to communicate and how frequently, who addresses the public on board-related matters, whether or not the relationship should include a social dimension between the board president and superintendent, and more. There is great value when both members of the partnership know the expectations each holds of the other, and living up to those expectations can deepen the trust and professional bond between the board president and superintendent.
A true partnership between the board president and school district superintendent is essential for effective board work. What makes that partnership successful in districts in east-Central Illinois may not be what is needed elsewhere in the state, but it might be a source of reflection and, perhaps, suggest something that is currently missing in an existing relationship. The superintendent should take the lead in establishing and solidifying the partnership he or she has with the board president, since it can directly determine the success of his or her superintendency. Dr. Preston Williams, former superintendent in Urbana, sums up the value of a good partnership with the board president, saying: “It is important that we can challenge thoughts both ways in a manner that is professional and respectful. We don’t always agree, but we listen to each other. We spent a lot of time together — it didn’t happen overnight. You need a strong board president to assure that the board functions properly.” There is also value to the board president in that it is a relationship that strengthens and supports his or her leadership with the board.
The end objective is a board that focuses on board work and functions efficiently to carry out its purpose. As districts face severe challenges during fiscal constraints and demands for improvement, the board president-superintendent partnership can only grow more important in its value.
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