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
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
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
Building Mutual Trust and Understanding
Developing Roles and Expectations
- Hold board/superintendent retreats away from the regular
board meeting place and distractions at least annually.
- Assist continuing education for board members by mentoring, orienting,
and sharing through a board agenda item designated for this purpose.
- 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.
- 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.
- The board should evaluate itself, the superintendent, and progress
toward strategies and goals developed through the board of education.
Building a Shared Vision
- Provide ongoing learning experiences to orient new board
members and superintendents to appropriate structures.
- Incorporate into administrator preparation programs the development
of skills involved in working with boards of education.
- Educate candidates running for the board to establish workable realistic
goals for their board service.
- Clearly establish and clarify roles and expectations for the superintendent
prior to hiring and convey these to the superintendent candidates during
the hiring process.
- Establish a process for superintendent evaluation which is district
specific and which clearly defines roles and expectations in advance of
- Ensure that the board and superintendent communicate the roles and
responsibilities of the governance team to the public and to each other.
- Position the board and superintendent to be seen as advocates for
children's needs at all levels.
Ensuring Long Term Communication Flow
- Develop a climate that encourages continuous school improvement.
- Invite meaningful participation of stakeholders in developing a shared
vision for stakeholders.
- 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.
- 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
- Clarify values of individuals and agree on common values for your
- 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
- 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.
Making Effective Decisions
- 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.
Developing Positive Links with the Community
- Create an environment that allows people to admit mistakes.
- Ensure that all board members and the superintendent receive the
same information and all information necessary for making decisions.
- Strive to create conditions in which all board members come to meetings
with open minds.
- 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
- Establish good communication that encourages listening and promotes
diversity of opinion to allow informed decision making.
- Create a mechanism which allows a "cooling off" period at those times
when emotions have reached a peak.
- Recognize and respect individual roles of each participant in decision
making and conflict resolution.
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.
- Protect board/superintendent credibility by communicating
only truthful, substantial messages to the public.
- Ensure that the message you wish to get out is consistently communicated
to all internal and external publics over time by the original source.
- Recognize the unique role and influence all staff members and students
have on reaching external publics.
- Develop links that are comprehensive addressing the diverse educational
needs of all members of the community.
- Reach out to provide meaningful involvement for all segments of the
- Understand the important role mass communication plays in our society
and develop means for working with it.
- Develop direct dialogue with boards of other entities.
- Use consultative management services to gain a better perspective
on the district's fiscal management.
- Ensure that school business managers are certified by the Iowa Association
of School Business Officials.
- 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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