School board relations are tough. These tips can help.
The why, what, and how of working in tandem with school board members
Of all the factors influencing your work, the most unpredictable is your school board. No other part of your job has the potential to change so drastically—and so quickly—with such intense effects on your day-to-day work. Research shows that when superintendents and school boards don’t have strong, positive relationships, student outcomes are worse. And that’s not all—antagonistically split school boards often weaken a bond referendum’s chances of passing.
For Dr. Steve Joel, this all means that superintendent-board relations are “mission critical.” Having served 37 years as a superintendent, Joel now works as a consultant for executive leaders in education—particularly on the topics of school boards and governance. More than once, he’s seen what happens when board relations go awry. “When a board and a superintendent aren’t in sync, the school district’s not going to be in sync,” he says. “And it isn’t going to take long before that trickles down to the classroom.”
So it’s clear that successful schools require collaborative boards—but how do you create that culture? We’ve learned it all comes down to strong relationships and clear procedures.
Build strong relationships with your school board.
Strong personal relationships are absolutely critical to every aspect of your work with your board—but building those relationships takes time. It starts when new members are first onboarded and continues long after.
Start off on the right foot.
As anyone who’s experienced turnover on their school board can tell you, new board members can radically transform the landscape of your work. That’s why, according to Joel, it’s crucial to start off on the right foot as you bring new members on board. “Working with your board chair, you really have to develop a good, robust onboarding process,” he says. But what should that onboarding entail?
Clarify everyone’s roles. In Virginia’s Portsmouth Public Schools, Superintendent Dr. Elie Bracy III and Board Chair Dr. Cardell Patillo have built a model board culture—and they attribute it at least in part to a clear delineation of responsibilities. “The main topic that’s covered in the orientation with our new board members is making sure that they understand their roles,” says Patillo. “The superintendent is in charge of the day-to-day activities of the school division. Board members are in charge of policy and governance.” Establishing this simple boundary in the beginning helps avoid power struggles between the board and superintendent. It also keeps work efficient and effective on both halves of the equation.
Have one-on-one conversations with new board members. “Every new board member has a platform—their specific areas of concern or interest,” says Bracy. “Taking that extra step with board members individually to talk with them about their specific interests helps me get to know them and them get to know me.” A one-on-one conversation also gives you a chance to tell your new board members what the district is already doing to address their existing concerns.
Familiarize them with your processes. For your school board members to be successful, they’ll need to understand how your board currently operates, but learning all these policies and procedures can be overwhelming. You and your board president should plan one to two full days for formal onboarding sessions—going over your handbook, explaining procedures, and laying ground rules—but consider giving new members chances to observe your board in action as well. At Portsmouth, Patillo invites newly elected members to board meetings before they’re even sworn in. “They don’t get to vote, but they get to see the procedure of the board meeting and how it normally flows,” he explains.
Provide mentorship opportunities. Joel recommends assigning each rookie a “board buddy”—a tenured board member who can help show them the ropes. This also builds an ongoing relationship the new board member can lean on. “For at least the first two or three months, board buddies can call after board meetings to check in and answer any questions the new board member might have,” Joel says.
The work of maintaining relationships is ongoing. “You have to spend time with individual board members, sometimes outside of meetings where you can truly get to know them,” says Joel. That’s why it’s important to keep having one-on-one conversations—not just during onboarding, but for the duration of each member’s time on the board.
These regular check-ins can help resolve conflicts before they even begin. “Very often, in these one-on-ones, you can get a better idea of why a particular board member might be feeling alienated,” Joel says. “Then, you can figure out what to do to help them become successful.”
Not every check-in needs to be a long, drawn-out conversation, either. “You could create a culture of a 10-minute phone call, just to hear a board member’s concerns,” says Joel. What matters is finding a regular, consistent way to connect and sticking with it.
The benefits of building these relationships can’t be overstated. For one, it will help you learn to anticipate each school board member’s concerns and moves—which will make your meetings that much more efficient and conflict-free. At Portsmouth, Bracy and his executive team “have been working with the board for so long that [they] know who’s going to ask what questions,” he says. This allows them to “get ahead” of those questions as they prepare their presentations.
But perhaps most importantly, developing close bonds with board members will allow you to see one another as people first and foremost. “We try to know each other’s lives—how many children we all have, what they’re involved in,” says Patillo. “With the superintendent, I realize that he’s more than just a superintendent. He’s also a husband, a father, a grandfather. So I have a genuine concern for him as a person—and that filters into the boardroom.”
Establish strong policies and procedures.
Unfortunately, strong relationships alone aren’t enough. You also need established norms and protocols—guide rails that will keep your collaborative work on track. “You need to decide: How do you make decisions? How do you create an agenda? How do you handle conflict between the board and the superintendent? How do you deal with critics in the community?” says Joel. “Answering those questions can help you address the challenges that are coming.”
How do you keep one another informed?
Of all the norms we’ll discuss, this is perhaps the most important one to get right because it feeds into all the others. Strong two-way communication between the board and the superintendent will keep you all up-to-date on whatever problems arise—and keep interpersonal conflict at a minimum.
First, it’s important for you and your board to establish that you will communicate about everything. “If something happens, good or bad, you need to make sure that the board is aware,” says Bracy. “They’re going to find out, so just go ahead and share that information.” As Joel puts it, “The goal of the superintendent is to never let your board be surprised.” This can’t just be a commitment on your part, however; it needs to be an established process that goes both ways. At Portsmouth, “it’s reciprocal,” says Bracy. “If Dr. Patillo hears something before I do, he lets me know.”
Of course, when you have several board members, lines of communication can get messy. That’s where your relationship with your board president or chair becomes pivotal. “The partnership Dr. Patillo and I have as board chair and superintendent is key,” Bracy tells us. When board members have questions, concerns, or other news, they let Patillo know; then he contacts Bracy. “We don’t say anything to the media or the public until we’ve checked with the superintendent,” says Patillo. “And even then, we lean on our communications to respond to the community and to the press—so we’re always sending out the same message and ensuring continuity between the board and the superintendent.”
You should also keep up regular communication with your board members even when there’s no urgent news to share. Bracy and Patillo, for example, have at least one short conversation every single day. When he was superintendent at Nebraska’s Lincoln Public Schools (LPS), Joel relied on a weekly Friday update via email. “The first half went over what happened during the previous week, and the second half went over what board members could expect the next week,” he explains.
Of course, all of this becomes easier when you have strong relationships with school board members, but it’s also a positive cycle. The more you communicate, the stronger and more trusting those relationships will become.
How do you resolve internal conflict with your school board?
It’s no secret that internal conflict can be one of the thorniest issues facing superintendents and boards these days. Even in the best situations, school boards are made up of people—and when people get together, tension is bound to arise. So how do you deal with it?
At LPS, Joel and his board’s first rule for handling conflict was always to discuss it—preferably outside of the public board meeting. “If you have a problem with me as superintendent, you have to let me know,” he explains. “And as an admin team, we can’t get upset with a board member without talking to them.”
It’s also crucial to allow board members to communicate and explain their opinions, even if you vehemently disagree with them. In meetings at Portsmouth, “we allow everyone to speak their opinions,” says Patillo. “The public deserves to hear their thoughts and concerns.” Plus, setting a standard for showing respect to all opinions builds trust among board members, and between the board and the superintendent. “Again, it’s knowing the interests and the dynamics of your board, making sure everyone’s opinion feels appreciated,” says Patillo. “We’ve created a culture of teamwork—so we can agree to disagree, but not to be disagreeable.”
Of course, it becomes much easier to respect the opinions of others when you commit to giving them the benefit of the doubt. At Portsmouth, whatever differences of opinion arise, Patillo believes all board members have one thing in common. “We all want the same thing, and that’s a high-quality education for our kids,” he says.
How do you deal with external conflict?
Even if you and your board are in total alignment, you’ll more than likely face criticism from the outside. As we’ve seen from news reports across the country, many public board meetings have become outlets for belligerent complaints. Is this avoidable? And if so, can better protocols help you ratchet down the tension?
As superintendent at LPS in the aftermath of pandemic closures, Joel faced this very problem. “We were getting 40 or 50 people showing up at board meetings, upset about masking and health standards,” he says. If each of those people took up to five minutes speaking, LPS was looking at three or four hours of public comments before they could even get down to the business at hand. What’s more, some of the commenters didn’t even live in the area. “A lot of people just wanted to be in the fight, and they didn’t have any association with Lincoln Public Schools,” he says.
Neither the LPS executive team nor the board wanted to shut down public comment completely—but they needed some way to rein in the chaos. So they implemented a new procedure. At the beginning of each board meeting, they reserved one hour for public comment and allowed each speaker three minutes instead of five. Anyone who didn’t get to speak during this hour would get another chance in a second hourlong session at the end of the meeting. “That worked well, because people weren’t as energized at 9 o’clock as they were at 6,” Joel explains. “And by going to three minutes, we were actually able to listen to more speakers.”
Both Portsmouth and LPS have also established protocols for how to interact with the public at board meetings—or rather, how not to interact. At Portsmouth, “we listen to public comments, but we don’t respond,” says Patillo. “That way we don’t have a contentious back-and-forth between the public and the school board.”
LPS followed a similar strategy, but with an important addendum. “We didn’t interact with the public at all unless they spoke mistruths,” Joel says. If someone from the public spread misinformation as part of their public comment, administrators in the audience could correct it. “That kept a bunch of people from coming to the meeting—but even more importantly, now those who did come had a focus on accuracy, not what they read on social media,” he says.
Another way to keep dissenters at bay? Keep your community as informed as possible. At Portsmouth, Bracy hired the district’s first communications director, and according to Patillo, current comms director Lauren Nolasco is “the best in the nation.”
“She keeps a lot of the heat down on major issues,” Patillo tells us. “Good external communication makes the community feel at peace. When she puts out a message about an issue, it often prevents the public from having to come to the meeting to talk about it, because they already have the information they need.”
It may be that right now, your school board relations are going fine. Maybe you’re not facing the problems that are plaguing other districts around the country. Even if that’s the case, next year, your board could very well look completely different—and it’s more difficult to implement new protocols in an already rocky climate. “It’s awfully hard for a superintendent to incorporate these things five years in because they’ve all of a sudden got some disruptive voices on the board,” Joel says. Now is the time to start building the relationships and protocols that will keep your board on track tomorrow.
As Joel advises, it’s not enough just to talk about all these strategies. The greatest playbook in the world won’t do you any good if you don’t actually use it. “You have to practice these things,” he says. “You can’t just develop it, feel good about it, and put it on a shelf. You’ve got to work on it.” And doing so, he argues, is paramount. “Education is the backbone of democracy, and we have to get this right,” he says. “Put a foundation in place that can stand the test of time and keep you focused on what’s most important: the education of our children.”
Originally published as "Working in Tandem" in the Summer 2023 issue of SchoolCEO Magazine.
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