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Chairman's Gavel: Communication critical to the board-superintendent relationship

Chairman's Gavel: Communication critical to the board-superintendent relationship

By Susan Salter | AASB Director of Leadership Development


More often than not, when the relationship between a board and its superintendent sours, it’s not competency or skill that’s to blame. It’s communication – communication of too much or too little information, lack of communication about expectations or performance or even differences in communication style. Any of those can be lethal to the camaraderie and trust that are essential to building a strong, functional leadership team.

As board president you should take a leadership role in ensuring that communications from and to the superintendent are contributing to a solid relationship by:

  • Leading the board to regularly evaluate the superintendent. At its core, the annual evaluation should provide your CEO with clear feedback about how the board feels about the job the superintendent is doing. Without that kind of feedback, at best the superintendent has only hunches or a general idea of the board’s level of satisfaction or lack thereof. Plus, your board is comprised of at least five unique individuals who must somehow communicate your expectations of him with one voice. The evaluation is an important mechanism for doing so because it allows the board to collectively notify the superintendent where he has met expectations, exceeded them or fallen short.

The best evaluation processes also create the opportunity for the board to have an open dialog with the superintendent about where the system is headed, challenges it faces and what it will take to raise performance to the next level.

  • Working with the superintendent on the agenda. Your superintendent will draft the agenda for meetings and work sessions and then review it with you. That’s a good time to share your insights about the board’s receptiveness to specific agenda items and to help the superintendent gauge whether to move ahead with or hold up on tackling key issues. Your knowledge of the other board members’ concerns can help the superintendent determine who may need more information. Often, those concerns can by allayed simply by the superintendent realizing he needs to talk directly with a member.

    You also can build the relationship by sharing feedback you’re hearing in the community about actions the board and superintendent have taken or are considering. Again, the superintendent cannot address problems he does not know are brewing.
  • Leading a board discussion about the frequency and kind of information the board gets. One of the frustrations most often mentioned by board members is getting caught unaware in public. There’s a fight at the high school that results in police being called and students being arrested. The city suddenly cuts down a long swath of iconic historic oak trees on a school’s perimeter. A teacher is arrested. Whatever the event, many members expect to get the heads up before such incidents hit the street. Many, but not all.

    Then there’s the issue of how members want to get that kind of information. Via text? Email? Phone? Immediately? Weekly? Without an actual discussion about what their board members expect, superintendents are left to guess or just use the method that’s most convenient for them. But it doesn’t take too many missed tidbits for members’ trust in the superintendent to erode substantially.

    Likewise, the superintendent’s frustration usually mounts when it becomes clear a board member (or members) has an issue with a recommendation, program or event that the has shared with constituents but not with the superintendent.

    As president, you can head off these types of conflict – and build a much greater level of trust – simply by ensuring the board discusses them before they arise. Do this by setting aside time at a retreat or work session to create board-superintendent operating protocols. These protocols don’t have to be elaborate; they simply lay out clearly and concisely how communication will be handled. For example, they might say:
    • The superintendent will notify members via text any time a student or employee is arrested at school or a school event.
    • Each board member will communicate first to the superintendent if he has concerns about a program that has been implemented or an action the superintendent plans to recommend.
    Will this eliminate all miscues? No. Sometimes incidents arise that the superintendent(or a board member) didn't realize would be controversial. But creations of formal operating protocols – or even just the discussion of these kinds of communication – can cut down on the problems.

    Keep in mind that it also usually helps to have a facilitator (such as AASB) lead the board-superintendent team through this type of discussion. That frees you as board president to participate in the discussion.

    Consider board training on communication styles. Even with all you do to ensure open, honest, respectful communication between the board and superintendent, each member’s personal style also will impact the relationship. Some members thrive on details while others only want the big picture or bottom line. Some focus primarily on the impact of decisions on staff and students, others on the need to get things done regardless of human impact. But your board can learn to understand and capitalize on those differences. A variety of training programs are available to help you do that through AASB and others – some of which will also help your board earn its required 2 hours of whole board training.
Originally published in January 2014.

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