Over the years, I have been asked to address the school board-superintendent relationship before groups ranging from new and aspiring superintendents at the Seton Hall Institute of Educational Leadership to newly elected and newly appointed school board members at NJSBA’s New Board Member Orientation.
And what a critical partnership it is!
How well a board and superintendent work together has a direct impact on the classroom. A body of research, initiated by the Iowa Association of School Boards, shows that a positive and collaborative relationship between the board and superintendent is one of the characteristics of high-achieving school districts. In its 2017 report, the NJSBA Task Force on Student Achievement referenced additional research showing that effective school boards lead as a united team with the superintendent, each from their respective roles and with strong collaboration and mutual trust.
The keyword is “trust” and a key player in building that relationship is the board president. While they hold no more authority than other board members, board presidents do carry additional responsibilities. In many respects, they are “first among equals,” setting the board meeting agenda in consultation with their superintendents, presiding over the meetings (not always an easy task), making committee appointments and conferring with their chief school administrators on crucial maters that may occur between board meetings.
In my decades of experience as a superintendent, I have worked with many board presidents. The most effective stand by their principles, expressing their positions directly without being confrontational. They are sensitive and fair to all members of the board, and they understand the distinct roles of the board (policymaking) and the superintendent (managing).
An excellent resource on the role of the board president is the NJSBA Critical Policy Reference Manual, which includes a model bylaw on “Election and Duties of the Board President” (File code 9121).
This issue of School Leader presents the perspective of two outstanding board of education members on the important role of the board president. In “Choosing the Board President” (page 34), Irene Lefebvre and Sheli Dansky, both of whom have been recognized as New Jersey School Board Members of the Year, explain why the selection of the board president, which will take place in most school districts at the organization meeting during the first week of January, is the “most important election after the election.” They outline many of the considerations that the board should consider when choosing an individual to fulfill this important role.
A positive and effective board-superintendent relationship sets the tone for the entire school community—from the administrative team to the instructional staff, from the parents to the students. When the relationship works well, schools run smoothly, and great things can be accomplished. And the board president is a critical factor in that partnership.