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5 Ways to Improve School Board and Superintendent Collaboration

Why is it important for school boards and superintendents to get along?

Richard Goodman said it best in his book, Getting There from Here: “Strong, collaborative leadership by local school boards and school superintendents is a key cornerstone of the foundation for high student achievement.”

Conflicts between board members and superintendents arise as they try to meet demands with limited resources. Confusion over job responsibilities, miscommunication, power struggles, and differing opinions and agendas can also cause contention among district leaders.

The pandemic and increasing political polarization have put even more pressure on superintendents to the point where 20% of them are considering quitting their job, according to a 2021 RAND Corp report.

Here are five ways school boards and superintendents can develop a positive, productive relationship that drives district success and increases student achievement:

School board meeting

1. Establish Clear Roles

A 2014 Hanover Research study found that “a strong, effective relationship between superintendents and school board members hinges upon clear definitions of each body’s duties and responsibilities.”

The role of a superintendent has evolved over the past 200 years from state representative to organizational manager, applied social scientist, and communicator, Robin L. Henrikson explained in his article, Building Purposeful Superintendent and School Board Relationships Through Examining the Historical Narrative of Evolving Roles. These shifts in job responsibilities have made the distinction between board member and superintendent a bit foggy.

As the Hanover Study explained, “Superintendents are no longer simply tasked with school management; their duties have expanded into areas of specialization and accountability, including student learning outcomes. Many cite this phenomenon as a shift in the traditional superintendency away from school management and toward “transformation leadership,” an approach entrenched in strategy and heavily focused on long term student learning outcomes. Simultaneously, school boards nationwide are venturing outside of their state and district defined roles of strategy, leadership, and policy development, with many members delving into administrative and day to day specifics, as well as advancing political motivations.”

Thus, districts should create policies that clearly outline school board and superintendent responsibilities. When writing these policies, focus on the verbs: what does the superintendent do and what does the board do? Try to be specific without making the school board and superintendent feel they have no flexibility to do what is in students’ best interests.

According to another Hanover Research report, the most effective school boards focus on creating policies and leave the superintendent and their professional staff to implement them. Both parties should hold themselves accountable for student success and not rest the responsibility solely on one pair of shoulders.

School board member and superintendent

2. Communicate Effectively

Strong communication helps superintendents and school boards work harmoniously.

Create a communication plan for how frequently you communicate, which channels you use, and for what purposes. Handover Research also recommends deciding how your district will respond to emergencies to prevent misinformation from spreading on social media.

School board members and superintendents may prefer phone calls over emails or vice versa. When in doubt, here’s how The School Superintendents Association recommends using different communication channels:

Email:

    • Weekly school district updates to staff, community, parents
      Weekly district update to board members
    • Crisis situations
    • General school board info
    • Do NOT include confidential info

Phone Call:

    • Add emphasis to an important message
    • Check-in with the superintendent or board members to see if there are questions

Hard Copy:

    • Items you want to guard against wide distribution
    • Thank you cards or birthday cards to build relationships
    • Legal documents

Face-to-Face:

    • Regular time for the superintendent to meet with each board member to discuss:
      • Are we aligning our operations with our vision, mission and goals?
      • Are we effectively measuring our performance against our vision, mission and goals?
      • What are the things you are excited about in our district?
    • Confidential information

Your district can also use video conferencing when distance or health problems prevent in-person interactions.

3. Evaluate Frequently

District leadership teams work most effectively when they consistently evaluate their progress and efficiency. Frequent evaluations help district leaders adjust their work strategies to ensure they reach their goals for improving student achievement.

Lon Garrison, AASB School Improvement Coordinator, outlines a performance-based evaluation process your district can use to increase productivity:

    • Board Priorities for the District – The board and superintendent set goals and create a strategic plan for the year.
    • Superintendent Leadership Plan (SLP) – The superintendent develops a Superintendent Leadership Plan (SLP) based on Board Priorities and shares it with the board.
    • Superintendent Self-Evaluation – The superintendent submits a self-evaluation based on the previous year’s SLP.
    • Summative Evaluation – The board evaluates the superintendent’s performance.
    • Mid-Point Review – The board and superintendent assess their progress toward the new SLP.
    • Second Superintendent Self-Evaluation – The superintendent completes another self-evaluation before the team creates a new Board Priorities.

When evaluating the superintendent, Henrikson suggests board members do it together instead of providing five sets of feedback. Individual evaluations can average out opinions and leave the superintendent unsure on how to proceed.

According to a Journal of School Leadership article, many superintendents complain board members don’t know how to do an effective evaluation. If this becomes a problem in your district, give these performance review tips from Indeed a try.

4. Create a Code of Civility

Consider adopting a code of civility to ensure the superintendent and board members respect each other and resolve disagreements courteously. Common guidelines for creating a civility code include:

    • Define what civility means and why it matters
    • Name what is and is not acceptable behavior
    • Set expectations
    • Outline the process of reporting civility code violations
    • Specify how the district will respond to violations

Here’s an example from the Houston Independent School District:

Code of Civility from Houston Independent School District

5. Build Consensus

District leadership teams can build stronger relationships by finding solutions everyone can support. This process – called consensus decision-making – protects minority needs and increases efficiency and productivity, according to Seeds for Change.

Use this flowchart as a guide:

Consensus decision-making flowchart from Seeds for Change.

Conclusion

School boards and superintendents can accomplish amazing things when they work together to improve student achievement. Look for PD training and workshops that can help your school board and superintendent define job responsibilities, communicate effectively, evaluate team members, and create a culture where everyone feels respected and valued.


Schedule PD training for administrators and teachers to enhance school instruction and leadership.

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