School Board as Cheerleader, Leader, and Micromanager

I recently got a wake-up call from a fellow school board member, upset about a comment I made to a reporter that turned up in a page-one story that morning.

The news was that our school district had hired a new principal and assistant principal for our Intermediate school, which the board had approved the night before, but the reason for my colleague’s call was my comment to the reporter,  though I had voted for the hires, that the selection process had been flawed. The board, I had complained to the reporter in an email, “interviewed none of the candidates for these job.  Not one.  And that’s a mistake, especially when we have a brand new superintendent with barely six months of experience under his belt.”

Was it a mistake? And should I have talked about it?  To the press?

My blunder, said the colleague, was that that I had undermined the Superintendent by criticizing him, after the vote, in public.

We are a small district in a small town, but her concern raises a number of questions that go to the heart of public school governance: How involved should the school board be in hiring and firing decisions?  Should board members do their grousing in public – after the fact?   And, more metaphysically, what’s the difference between public and private anyway?

Big questions, which I can only touch on in this blog.

In my experience, a school board member criticizing the superintendent in public is one of the seven deadly sins of school board service.  I’m not yet sure what all of those sins are quite yet, but a close second on the Get Thee Behind Me, Satan! list is “micromanaging”: Thou shalt not second-guess the superintendent.  I had managed to sin twice at once.

Even at board meetings, which are public, there is an intricate dance of deferral to the superintendent.  The unspoken default behavior – which might owe to table arrangement, since the board, including the superintendent, is lined up together, facing the “public,” which consists mostly of members of the labor “units” – which makes it hard to dissent.  It has to do with “teamwork,” one of the major highways to heaven, if we stick to the religious theme here, according to school board association literature.

We had an interesting turn of events last year, in which the superintendent (a different one) was disliked by much of the staff and many parents — and the board, which still felt compelled to support her, was faced with some ugly meetings in which staff and public were mad at them.  Suddenly, as a critic of the super, I went from goat to hero for “speaking out” in public against the superintendent. (She had, at one point, ordered staff not to talk to school board members.)  In fact, her resignation was accompanied by a letter to the editor of the paper complaining about being driven from her post by nosey board members. I was happy to take the rap.  (My technique was that of the journalist: ask questions; she rarely had answers, an embarrassing predicament, especially in public.)

It was trickier now. We had a “local boy” as superintendent and his choices for principal and assistant principal were not controversial.   We were back to the question of what you do, as a board member, when just about everyone, for reasons of personality as much as policy, is “okay” with the way things are, even if those things are not “right.”  Is the “rogue” board member just a rogue?  Or a messenger of Truth?

Our board had had heated disagreements about the process for hiring the new principal and assistant principal – owing, I must admit, mostly to my dissent.  I didn’t like the process.

The superintendent had appointed two teams to vet the applicants for the two jobs and to interview the finalists. The teams included no board members and no community members who didn’t work for the district or have a child in the district school.  There were no parents on these teams who didn’t have a direct connection (e.g. by marriage) to a staffer.  The teams – eight on one and six on the other – were made up of district staff, including secretaries, aides, and teachers.  The leader of the assistant principal search team had just been appointed principal of our new Junior High (after serving several years as an assistant principal of the high school); he was assisted by an assistant principal (three years of experience) from another school.  It was, in short, an inside job.

I had voiced my objections, at a board meeting, to the lack of a board member on the teams, and eked out a reluctant assent from the Superintendent – my colleagues seemed mildly unconcerned about the issue – that board members could participate.  “But the rule for membership on these teams is that you have to be at every interview,” said the Superintendent.  I thought that a ridiculous rule for a member of the board, but I said nothing at the meeting.  (The rule in journalism, which I have practiced for some three decades, is to take on one hard question at a time; get in the door first.)

It didn’t take long for the proverbial mud to hit the fan. I attended four interviews on one day and two the next with the assistant principal team. But I had to excuse myself, I told the team leader on the second day, because of a previous commitment.  When I showed up the next morning, at 8am, for the final round of interviews, a nervous team leader met me at the conference room door and escorted me to an adjoining office.

“I’m very sorry,” he said. “But the superintendent told me that since you missed an interview, you couldn’t participate any longer.”

“But he’s on vacation,” I said. “Call him,” I ordered.  The poor fellow, now almost white with fear, called. No answer.

I left peacefully, but the next board meeting executive session was no walk in the park.  We did eke out a compromise, however: board members could attend the interviews for the principal position, but “as observers” only. We couldn’t ask questions.

My opinion?  The process was ridiculous.

A school board is charged with the responsibility of running a school district, and the hiring of school administrators is an important part of that function.  (Obviously, in larger districts, you can’t get so cozy, but there are ways of applying the principle of “informed board” to large districts as well.)  If the board – or any board member – wants to sit in on the process, it should.  And in the case of a district that has had a half dozen superintendents in a dozen years, and dismal academic outcomes all the way along, and on top of that has a new Superintendent in his first six months of superintendency, the board must intervene.  In fact, I had suggested that these teams should recommend to the board two or three finalists, and that the full board conduct the final interviews.  I didn’t even get a second on that motion.

This brings us, skipping a few intervening steps, to the other big question in this small drama: Is the superintendent always right?  Or, should the board pretend that the super is always right?

If the board is a cheerleader, should it wave pom-poms when the fullback is running toward the wrong goal post?  Some of my colleagues thought Yes.

The previous year I had a public debate – in the newspaper‘s letters column – with a fellow board member (who had been board president) on just this question. He was certain that it was the school board’s job – its only job, he said — to hire a superintendent and then sit back and let him/her run the district. His was a neat argument. The school board was not in a position to know right or wrong about any matter of policy – we were then arguing about whether the board should have a curriculum committee – because the board didn’t have the facts, which it didn’t have because it was the superintendent’s job to have them (and keep them).

There is a very strong Messiah Syndrome at work here, from what I’ve observed: the board’s primary responsibility (except, of course, for the long debates about facility fee waivers and the merits of whether to give the swimming pool lifeguards a 50-cent raise) is to find the savior, even if it means burning through anti-Christ after anti-Christ.  (This starts us down another interesting path in the woods of school board land: the never-look-back trail. For this, please see Craig D. Hochbein & Daniel L. Duke’s recent commentary in Education Week, Failing to Learn from Failure.” Subscription, unfortunately, required.)

It’s easy to see where such superintendent worship comes from.  By coincidence, a few days after the front-page story with my public dissent, I participated in a “webinar” conducted by the New York State School Boards Association on the subject of – you guessed it – “recruiting and hiring.”

The board’s role, said NYSSBA’s webinar leader, “is to make policy and ensure accountability.”  And indeed, we had a policy on recruiting and hiring (#9240, written by NYSSBA), that read, “the Board will provide and maintain qualified and certified instructional and support personnel to carry out the educational programs of the district.”

Seemed pretty clear to me, but when the question of the board participating in job candidate interviews came up, the NYSSBA expert said this was “overstepping” the board’s responsibility.   Micromanaging.

Unfortunately, the webinar process does not lend itself to a hearty give-and-take, so we weren’t able to explore the problem of how the board could be responsible for getting qualified staff if it did not care to know anything about the candidates.  And, if the district had already burned through a half-dozen superintendents, wouldn’t – shouldn’t – someone wonder about the board’s hands-off policy?

In the end, my colleagues on the board did register some reservations about the two candidates selected, but only one board member voted against the superintendent’s  recommendations (on the grounds the salaries were too high).  Everyone else chose to defer to the Superintendent.

I shocked everyone, including the candidates, whom I advised beforehand of the reasons I would vote No, by voting with the majority.

“I changed my mind on the vote last night,” I emailed my colleagues, “because, in the end, I realized that it was not the candidates’ fault that they were there; it was the board’s `fault.’  The board fought for them, and that too was important to me — the board has committed itself to not letting them fail.”

That’s a board of education’s real job: not to let anyone fail. We’ll see soon enough if we’ve made any progress on that front.

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