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Chairman's Gavel: Working with the superintendent

Chairman's Gavel: Working with the superintendent

By Susan Salter | AASB Director of Leadership Development

If you had to describe your relationship with your superintendent in terms of a TV show, would it be: 

A. Friends
B. The Glee Project
C. The Twilight Zone
D. Married with Children

Obviously, when the relationship is good, both you and your superintendent are less stressed and more productive. Conversely, when things are tense or outright hostile, it takes a toll on you personally and makes both your jobs more difficult. But the quality of that relationship impacts far more than just the two of you. Much like way the relationship between spouses influences the quality of life for everybody in a household, your ability to work and communicate with your superintendent can sweeten or sour life for the entire board team and central staff.

As board president there are steps you can take that to keep that relationship healthy:

  • Model respect for the superintendent’s professional knowledge. Do your actions convey to the board, staff and community that you believe the superintendent has the know-how to do the job? A dismissive or suspicious attitude will be obvious to most of those watching and sends a powerful – and negative – message. If others see that you don’t believe your CEO can get the job done, it all but gives them permission to treat the superintendent likewise.
  • Follow policy. Model respect for the superintendent by ensuring you and the other board members always follow the chain of command when dealing with parent complaints. As president, you set the tone for this with the way you handle delegations or individuals at board meetings. Rather than conducting a board inquiry during the meeting or trying to solve the problem on the spot, refer the disgruntled individual to the superintendent. Ask the superintendent to look into the complaint and bring a recommendation to the board, if warranted.
  • Talk AND listen. One of the most important things for you to do as board president is to regularly talk with the superintendent about his plans, goals and ideas as well as issues and concerns on the horizon. To be the effective team the two of you should be, you both must know what matters to the other and understand how the other thinks. This enables you both to recognize potential issues that could cause concern and discuss them before they become problems.

    On a related note, facilitate communication between the superintendent and the rest of the board. Encourage every member of the board to keep the superintendent apprised of issues and concerns and help the superintendent keep them well informed. Promote a “no surprises” attitude on both sides of the table.
  • Work together on the agenda. Development of the agenda can be a bone of contention between the board president and superintendent. Check your board policy to see what it says about the way the agenda will be developed. Generally, though, the superintendent drafts the agenda. As the day-to-day administrative leader, only he knows which items need action or consideration at the meeting. He is the one who keeps track of upcoming deadlines and system needs.

    The superintendent then reviews the agenda with the board president. This is the time to decide if items should be added or subtracted. This also allows the board president to let the superintendent know which items might be potentially contentious so you are both prepared for the meeting.

Another general rule: The superintendent should attend all board meetings, work sessions and executive sessions, with a few exceptions. As a general rule, if the board is in session, the superintendent should be at the table, actively participating as a vital part of the leadership team. The only times to exclude the superintendent from executive sessions are when he is the subject of the discussion and when the board is deliberating a personnel or discipline action following a hearing.

Originally published in August 2012.

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