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Monograph Series Volume IV, Number 1

Executive Summary

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Issue Area One: Building Trust and Understanding Within and Between the Board of Education and the Superintendent of Schools.

Issue Area Two: Building a Shared Vision that is Oriented to and Focuses on Student Needs for the Future.

Issue Area Three: Developing an Understanding of Roles and Expectations of the Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools.

Issue Area Four: Ensuring Long Term Communication and Information Flow Within and Between the Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools.

Issue Area Five: Making Effective Decisions, Including Emphasis on Consensus Building, Conflict Resolution and Learning Together.

Issue Area Six: Developing Positive Links with the Community.

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Executive Summary
Dave Else

 The concept of the local school board originated in New England, where citizens controlled schools directly through town meetings. By 1826, a separate school committee detached from the rest of local government originated in Massachusetts. The model spread rapidly throughout the nation (Kirst 1991).

In 1837, the first superintendents of schools were hired in Buffalo, New York and Louisville, Kentucky. Thus began the relationship between boards of education and superintendents that has existed in varying degrees for more than a century and a half.

 In a study conducted by the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) at the University of Northern Iowa in 1991, nearly 29% of 368 Iowa superintendents responding reported they were less satisfied in their current position than they would like to be or were dissatisfied to the point of feeling a need to leave the superintendency. When asked to identify the two most prevalent reasons for their dissatisfaction, 11% listed interference by the board of education in day to day operations of the school (Decker & Else, 1991). Twenty-six percent said a source of conflict with the board was the board's efforts to try to manage the district."

In a related study of boards of education, the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, D.C. collected data from individuals serving on nearly 300 school boards in 16 states. Board members said they "involve themselves too much in day to day management of schools and have weak procedures for handling conflicts with their superintendents--two frequent charges of critics of the way boards operate" (Olson, 1992, pp. 1, 11).

It is not surprising that the relationship between superintendents and boards of education has become frayed. "The current pressures to improve schools and increase their accountability to the public have been one of this century's longest and most sustained periods of national attention," according to Stanford professor, Larry Cuban (cited in Goldstein, 1992, p. 15). He further noted the attention has been all negative. Often boards of education and superintendents are viewed as the persons responsible for American education that does not fair well in world comparisons, higher taxes, a struggling economy, and a host of other educational ills. The superintendent is caught in the middle of a political vice keeping the bureaucracy satisfied and the board satisfied (Goldstein). On top of all of this, state legislatures are bringing ever increasing pressure on boards of education and superintendents to transform schools, usually without providing additional funds to meet these responsibilities (Seaton, Underwood, & Fortune, 1992).

While the potential for strain is great, the board/superintendent relationship does more to determine the effectiveness and efficiency of education in schools than any other single factor. Further, it is posited the relationship between and among board members and the superintendent is healthier when all parties discuss and resolve misunderstandings and disagreements that precede serious conflict. However, as Costallo, Greco, and McGowan (1992) noted, ". . . that's easier said than done--neither school board members nor superintendents are trained to perform such a process" (p. 32).

In an effort to assist boards and superintendents in opening communication, building understanding, and resolving conflict, 50 Iowa superintendents, board members, and university faculty came to the University of Northern Iowa campus to examine critical issues, identify options for resolution of issues, and recommend strategies for strengthening board/superintendent relationships in Iowa schools. Individuals were selected based on their keen interest in school leadership, their skills as communicators, and their enthusiasm toward exploring board/superintendent relations in the interactive environment characteristic of the working conference format. The purpose of the conference was to develop an action agenda to assist schools in strengthening board/superintendent relations.

Each participant selected 1 of 6 issue areas for indepth discussion: (a) building mutual trust and understanding; (b) developing an understanding of roles and expectations of the board of education and the superintendent of schools; (c) building a shared vision that focuses on student needs for the future; (d) ensuring long term communication flow within and between the board of education and the superintendent; (e) making effective decisions, including emphasis on consensus building, conflict resolution, and learning together; and (f) developing positive links with the community.

Participants prioritized issue areas and were then invited to write a position paper on the area which each self selected. Papers were submitted prior to the conference, copied, and sent to participants of specified issue areas.

This monograph is a compilation of the position papers in each issue area as well as the consensus reports groups developed during the three day conference and written by each group's facilitator(s). Because time constraints prevented development of a conference report, these papers represent the views of the participants within each issue area and are not necessarily shared by all conference participants. While the reader is encouraged to read the entire monograph to gain detail and understanding, the following recommendations are presented to highlight the conference outcomes:

Building Mutual Trust and Understanding

  1. Hold board/superintendent retreats away from the regular board meeting place and distractions at least annually.
  2. Assist continuing education for board members by mentoring, orienting, and sharing through a board agenda item designated for this purpose.
  3. The board president should mentor all board members, become personally acquainted with board members and the superintendent, clarify business items for new members, anticipate questions of all board members, and encourage all board members to contribute to discussions.
  4. Update the board policy book including the superintendent's job description; board code of ethics; and clearly defined roles and expectations for the superintendent, board president, and board members.
  5. The board should evaluate itself, the superintendent, and progress toward strategies and goals developed through the board of education.
Developing Roles and Expectations
  1. Provide ongoing learning experiences to orient new board members and superintendents to appropriate structures.
  2. Incorporate into administrator preparation programs the development of skills involved in working with boards of education.
  3. Educate candidates running for the board to establish workable realistic goals for their board service.
  4. Clearly establish and clarify roles and expectations for the superintendent prior to hiring and convey these to the superintendent candidates during the hiring process.
  5. Establish a process for superintendent evaluation which is district specific and which clearly defines roles and expectations in advance of the evaluation.
  6. Ensure that the board and superintendent communicate the roles and responsibilities of the governance team to the public and to each other.
  7. Position the board and superintendent to be seen as advocates for children's needs at all levels.
Building a Shared Vision
  1. Develop a climate that encourages continuous school improvement.
  2. Invite meaningful participation of stakeholders in developing a shared vision for stakeholders.
  3. Collect information needed to enable the board and superintendent to study what others are doing and to research findings, effective practices, innovative teaching methods, curriculum and assessment trends, mandates, and current programs before making decisions.
  4. Help key groups, including legislators and government leaders, who have considerable control over schools and resources to see education as a priority and to share in the common vision for Iowa students.
  5. Clarify values of individuals and agree on common values for your schools.
Ensuring Long Term Communication Flow
  1. Evaluate, modify, and implement the following formal systems to meet the needs of the district and ensure long term communication information flow essential for an excellent educational system for children.
  • Board meeting system to communicate and provide for the expected events that will occur at a board meeting. Newsletter system to provide a timely, consistent flow of information between the board and superintendent.
  • Workshop system to bring all board members to a common understanding of issues relevant to their decision making responsibilities.
  • Evaluation/accountability system to communicate the board's expectations of the superintendent regarding his/her role and responsibilities.
  • Strategic planning system to develop and communicate both short and long term needs and goals of the district.
  • Training/orientation system to prepare new and continuing members of the board for the complex issues facing today's school boards.
  • Special issues system to address major changes in the district such as school closings and boundary realignment.
  • Board policy system to communicate district requirements for school operation and related activities.
  • Crisis information system to provide information to board members in the event of a sudden crisis.
  • Negotiation system to define the school district's plan for collective bar gaining on an annual basis.
  • Sub committee system to provide an avenue of review for various educationally related areas and communicate recommendations to the entire school board.
  • Adjudicatory system to assist the board to understand and fulfill its role as a fact finder and adjudicator in those areas defined by law.
  1. Nurture an informal system of extra official contacts that occur between board members and superintendent for the purpose of ensuring long term trust and communication.
Making Effective Decisions
  1. Create an environment that allows people to admit mistakes.
  2. Ensure that all board members and the superintendent receive the same information and all information necessary for making decisions.
  3. Strive to create conditions in which all board members come to meetings with open minds.
  4. Make decisions and resolve conflicts in a manner which reflects the mission/vision of the district encouraging each individual board member to shed his/her individual identity and become a part of the whole.
  5. Establish good communication that encourages listening and promotes diversity of opinion to allow informed decision making.
  6. Create a mechanism which allows a "cooling off" period at those times when emotions have reached a peak.
  7. Recognize and respect individual roles of each participant in decision making and conflict resolution.
Developing Positive Links with the Community
  1. Protect board/superintendent credibility by communicating only truthful, substantial messages to the public.
  2. Ensure that the message you wish to get out is consistently communicated to all internal and external publics over time by the original source.
  3. Recognize the unique role and influence all staff members and students have on reaching external publics.
  4. Develop links that are comprehensive addressing the diverse educational needs of all members of the community.
  5. Reach out to provide meaningful involvement for all segments of the community.
  6. Understand the important role mass communication plays in our society and develop means for working with it.
  7. Develop direct dialogue with boards of other entities.
  8. Use consultative management services to gain a better perspective on the district's fiscal management.
  9. Ensure that school business managers are certified by the Iowa Association of School Business Officials.
The challenge for all school leaders is to develop a system that effectively and efficiently delivers the highest quality education to students with the resources available. A key factor in developing this type of system is committing time and energy to nurturing positive relationships between and among the superintendent and board members.
Resource List
  • Costallo, R., Greco, J., & McGowan, T. (1992). Clear signals: Reviewing working relationships keeps board and superintendent on course. The American School Board Journal, 179(2), 32-34.
  • Decker, R., & Else, D. (1991). A study of the Iowa superintendency.
  • Goldstein, A. (1992). Stress in the superintendency. The School Administrator, 9(49), 8-17.
  •  Kirst, M. (1991). School board: Evolution of an American institution. The American School Board Journal, 178(11), A11-A14.
  • Olson, L. (1992). School boards' marks on own assessment give critics credence. Education Week, 12(8), 1, 11.
  • Seaton, D, Underwood, K., & Fortune, J. (1992). The burden school board presidents bear. The American School Board Journal, 179(1), 32-37.

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