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Tips from Dr. Jason Andrews on getting your board relations off the ground.

By Brittany Keil Last Updated: August 17, 2021

While most college freshmen were pledging fraternities or settling into dorm life, Dr. Jason Andrews was driving to his hometown of Harpursville, New York, to serve as the youngest member of his district’s school board. As the Harpursville Central High School class president, Andrews became interested in the broader politics at play when his school district’s superintendent was forced to resign. In the debate that followed this abrupt change, Andrews felt that his own voice, and that of students in general, was being ignored. Vowing to change that, Andrews was elected to his first term as a school board member at the age of 18, a position that he would hold for over seven years.

This choice would serve as a springboard for Andrews’ long career in education. Since then, he has served as a teacher, coach, middle school principal, school board president, and superintendent. Currently in his 16th year leading New York’s Windsor Central School District, Andrews also works as a consultant with Solution Tree, where he leads professional development sessions about school and administrative culture all across the country.

Given his unique background, Andrews is now a leading expert on one of the trickiest aspects of the superintendency: board relations. To gain insight into this complex relationship, we talked to Dr. Andrews about the impact of board relations on everything from school culture to student learning.

How do you maintain a positive, productive relationship with your board?

There’s a quote from Mike Schmoker: Clarity precedes competence. Part of it is being really clear on roles; I think it’s critical that people know their lanes. It’s also really important to define what the mission, vision, values, and goals are for the school. When you haven’t been clear on those things, it’s really easy to get into the weeds and fall into micromanagement. In a worst-case scenario, a school governance team can feel like they are dealing with issues on a case-by-case basis or just putting out fires. All too often, this can happen between a superintendent and a school board when something has soured within the relationship, or when there isn’t a clear process for handling a specific situation.

I think it’s also important to have some basic communication skills. You have to be able to communicate very clearly and at the appropriate level. If you want the board to be at the governance level, then you have to provide them with governance-level information. If you provide them with management-level information, then you’re going to get management-level questions.

One of the big problems with communication is that people listen to reply rather than to understand. When working with a board, everyone needs to understand not only their roles but also the communication protocols. As superintendent, you must spend time defining both of those things. This way, you will help your board members be successful in their roles—which will help you be successful in yours.

How do you balance board members’ different viewpoints and priorities?

It all goes back to the four pillars: mission, vision, values, and goals. You must ask yourself, Are we clear on our core purpose? Do we have a shared mission to ensure that all students are learning at high levels? As a team, we have to decide what we want our district’s reputation to be. It doesn’t matter if we have differing viewpoints or interests—as long as they are consistent within the shared vision and values that we have already established.

It’s our job as superintendents to make recommendations;  it is the board’s job to decide whether or not to approve those recommendations. Sometimes, that feels like a weakness. We take those decisions as a judgment of us and our expertise. We have to learn not to take things personally so we can work together to move forward.

Even with the relationships you’ve built, has it ever been challenging to work with board members?

Absolutely. You have to accept that it’s bound to happen. Sometimes you have smart, well-intentioned, supportive people, but there’s a particular interest that they feel really strongly about. We have to go back and work through what aligns to our four pillars.

Even when things are really tough, remember to listen to understand. Your board members have to know that you understand their perspectives, and, more than that, you value them. It’s also helpful if they know your values and have some expectation of what you are going to do.

How does setting expectations help you be more proactive rather than reactive with your board?

Honestly, that’s how you build trust, right? Imagine you’re at a crowded four-way stop and you’re unsure which car is going to go next. Everyone ends up spending way too much time second-guessing themselves and carving out their own rules rather than being able to rely on a clear, familiar pattern. It’s the same when it comes to navigating a crisis. That predictability and consistency allows people to trust one another, which helps them feel more comfortable having autonomy over their own actions.

I think that helps a lot with being a strong leader. If your team knows that you are not going to follow a flavor-of-the-month approach but rather stick to your mission, vision, values, and goals, then it’s easier for them to trust you. Everyone won’t always agree with you, but people are more accepting if they understand why you made a certain decision.

Do you think maintaining a relationship with your board gets easier over time?

Some parts of the job definitely do get easier. By the time I got to my 16th year of the superintendency, there were few things that I hadn’t dealt with before (besides a pandemic). Once again, if you have that strong moral compass and those four pillars, then no matter what problem you are dealing with, people generally know how you are going to handle things before you even weigh in. That makes a lot of the day-to-day issues easier to handle, which can free up some space to innovate and try new things.

But, of course, this is a role where you can never be complacent. In 2005, our high school had a 78% graduation rate. Last year, our graduation rate was 97%. I’m really proud of that, but we’re not hitting the mark for all kids. Getting to 100% is going to be a really heavy lift—it will require us to think of things we’ve never done before. It’s always challenging.

How do you hope to see board relations shift in the future?

Moving forward, I would love to see more work go into continuous professional development for school board members, both individually and as teams. In many cases, they have little to no formal training about some aspects of their jobs, including the procedures of boardsmanship. These are very real, very specific skills. You don’t automatically have them. You have to build them over time.

I have recently partnered with a group called SuperEVAL, which builds capacity in governance teams through self-evaluations. It’s a great way for board members to consider whether or not they are growing, and whether they are being proactive or reactive. We do this for almost every other profession, so it makes sense to do it for school boards, too.

Illustration: A passenger jet flying through the clouds, with the sun visible in the background.

How do these relationships contribute to better student outcomes?

Once you are focused on the right things and have that relationship with your board, you are better able to communicate your policies and strategic plan through your budget. That budget is the numerical expression of your four pillars. I believe every district in the country should have the same mission: to ensure that all kids are learning. If we’re clear on that mission, we can use our resources to support what we value.

This sense of stability trickles down, setting the tone and direction for everyone. It allows you all to focus on more than just promoting your special interests or putting out fires. Just as stability can positively affect student learning, instability can have a negative impact. If you’re having constant upheaval in the board and superintendency, that can translate into high levels of turnover in your school buildings, which absolutely affects kids. When you think about that, it’s easy to see how turbulence on the governance team can result in academic challenges as well.

How can districts better clarify the roles of superintendents and their school boards?

The thing is, you’ll never find the time to clarify what these roles are. You have to make the time—it’s that important. Establishing relationships isn’t just a one-and-done thing. Just as we have to provide maintenance to buildings, relationships require regular maintenance as well.

Sometimes, maintaining your relationship with your school board—and constantly returning to your district’s mission, vision, values, and goals—can feel redundant, but that’s okay. You really want to get to a place where it feels automatic. You can’t wait until there is an issue to establish those routines; you must create that system ahead of time.

Finally, you have to consider that you are managing and reporting to a group—not just one person. That can be pretty tricky. Your board members may have very different interests, agendas and backgrounds. But you have to work with them using the fundamental human principles of honesty, respect, and kindness. This goes a lot further than people think.


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