Folk singer Mary Travers used to say that fans would sometimes ask her, “Which one are you married to, Peter or Paul?” In fact, the answer was neither, but she would explain that in many ways, the trio’s professional relationship was like a marriage.
The same can be said about board presidents and superintendents. Advice on making their relationships successful is similar in many ways to what any marriage counselor, or respected family elder, would pass on to a newly wedded couple:
- Always be honest with each other.
- Always listen to each other.
- Do not hold grudges.
- Move on, after discussing differences.
It’s true. The ingredients of a successful marriage – honesty, communication, continuous work at the relationship – are components of positive interaction between a school board president and a superintendent. That’s important, because an effective school board and administration demand a close, communicative relationship between the two highest-ranking officials in the district.
Having spent 32 years as a district superintendent in three New Jersey communities and many years as a board member, I have learned quite a few things about how to make the board president-superintendent relationship work. I was happy to share my experience with a group of enthusiastic board presidents and vice presidents during a session at NJSBA’s conference, “Preparing for, and Facing the Challenges of, School Board Leadership,” on February 8.
When the board president and superintendent have a positive, effective relationship, it sets the tone for everyone else in the school district. When the relationship works well, schools run smoothly, and great things can get done. But getting to that point isn’t easy. As with a marriage, the board president and the superintendent must work at it.
Step one is for each to know his or her respective role in the leadership of the school district. Eliminating confusion over who does what is essential. In a nutshell, the board president conveys community and board desires to the superintendent and, with the full board, sets policy based on district educational goals and beliefs. The superintendent conveys information on educational issues to the board and community, and implements the policy created by the board.
Understanding that textbook definition of their roles is not enough, however. The board president and superintendent must go further and actively work to build communications through efforts, such as regular, informal “sit-downs.” This may require one of them to be ready to take the lead and be the first to reach out.
They must be honest, and always listen to each other, even if they do not agree with one another’s viewpoints on particular issues. And they must discuss with other board members the need for a special, working relationship.
As in a marriage, integrity and amity are paramount: No one wants to be hit with surprises, and past differences must be set aside for the sake of the students and staff.
Finally, when a marriage is struggling, both individuals must be ready to reach out to a third party to mediate any disputes.
These are some of the tips I shared with board presidents and vice presidents at our February 8 leadership conference. Interest in the training program, which addressed a wide variety of leadership skills and topics, far exceeded the capacity. So, we will be repeating the program on March 29, and I will be there again to speak with school board leaders about the importance of their relationships with their superintendents. For more information about the upcoming leadership conference, visit http://staging.njsba.org/.
These are my Reflections. I look forward to hearing yours. Contact me at [email protected].