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Why Board-Superintendent Relationships Matter

Two businessmen talking in an office.

Relationships matter. One of the most important relationships your board has is with your superintendent. Research shows that with very few exceptions, the longer a superintendent stays in the district, the better students perform. So, your board needs to figure out how to keep a good superintendent.

The answer is deceptively simple. The strength of the board-superintendent relationship is frequently the key factor in how long a superintendent stays in the district. A good relationship with the board keeps a good superintendent around.

But strong relationships don’t just happen. They take work. That’s why the state requires that school district leadership teams get annual team building training.

Connecting the Research 

The board-superintendent relationship sets the tone for every other relationship in the district. From the board to the campus, and into the classroom, your board affects the culture and operations in the school district. Relationships, beliefs, and actions all cascade down to the most important thing: student outcomes.

A 2006 study by Tim Waters and Bob Marzano, “School District Leadership that Works: The Effect of Superintendent Leadership on Student Performance,” showed that even in the second year of a superintendent’s tenure, student performance starts to improve.

Waters and Marzano reviewed the findings of 27 studies involving 2,817 districts and achievement scores of 3.4 million students. They found a strong correlation between district leadership and student achievement and defined five specific responsibilities of district leadership tied to student performance:

  • Collaborative goal setting
  • Non-negotiable goals for achievement and instruction
  • Board alignment and support of district goals
  • Monitoring goals for achievement and instruction
  • Allocation of resources to support achievement and instruction goals

The Consequences of Instability and Turnover

Maintaining a consistent course of action is a prerequisite for success in schools. Frequent turnover in district leadership disrupts learning and evaluation for students and staff. The longer the superintendent stays, the more consistent the learning and evaluation become.

Districts with frequent superintendent turnover can have trouble attracting a qualified superintendent. Finding candidates willing to commit long term is difficult if one of the factors contributing to the high turnover rate is a tumultuous board-superintendent relationship.

It's not hard to see how this can lead to a vicious cycle. The board finds itself in a pattern of hiring a new superintendent every few years, only to see them soon take a job at another district. The turnover feeds low staff morale and additional turnover at the administration and staff levels. The disruptions can galvanize the community against the board, and voters may rally to elect different school board members.

In his research describing the political realities of school boards, Frank Lutz found that when voters rally to elect different school board members, this leads to:

  • Replacing the superintendent
  • Changing district policy
  • Changing practices
  • Changing the direction of the school district

Students bear the brunt of the dysfunction. The cycles of turnover and leadership instability negatively affect student achievement.

Reducing Instability Through Community Engagement

Intentional community engagement is important to maintaining stability and focus when an established team experiences board member turnover.

A survey of Texas school boards with focused and clear community information campaigns reported that newly elected board members often enter board service with a strong knowledge of their role and how the district operates. Having board members who can begin their tenure with a working knowledge of their role and district operations has led to stronger and more effective relationships between the board and superintendent.

A strategic approach to engaging the community also produces better student outcomes, with parents and community members expressing more satisfaction and confidence in the education system. High levels of trust and satisfaction work to reduce unhealthy turnover in the system. In reviewing self-assessment results of Texas school boards, Ivan Lorentzen noted that boards reporting higher levels of community engagement saw improved student performance.

Governance teams with high community engagement demonstrates the following:

  • An effective process for responding to questions, concerns, or comments, from citizens
  • An established way of ensuring the public is informed of the board’s roles and responsibilities
  • A transparent and accountable manner for conducting its business
  • A clear method for seeking community and staff input in its decision making 

Improving the Board-Superintendent Relationship

Clarifying expectations is the key to an effective relationship.

  1. The board must clarify expectations among themselves.
  2. The board must communicate these expectations to the superintendent.
  3. Trustees and superintendents discuss what they expect of each other at least once a year.

Developing a long-term vision and mission with the superintendent helps build and strengthen the relationship. It reinforces an understanding of what's needed to make those ideals a reality.

Collaborative creation and documentation of these goals and objectives is also important. It helps your board and the superintendent to:

  • Understand their roles
  • Focus on agreed upon priorities
  • Improve the relationship
  • Exemplify exceptional governance

TASB can help your leadership team understand what you’re doing well, and help you discover what you can do better. Plus, our team-building program earns you training credit. Our experienced board consultants can even create a custom training and consulting packages specific to your team’s needs. Contact us about team-building options at 800-580-8272, extension 2453.

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